Defense Department signs at SXSW in Austin, Texas.

Defense Department signs at SXSW in Austin, Texas. Defense One / Lauren C. Williams

The Army’s relationship with Austin hits new stride—and snags

Amid the protests that met Pentagon officials at the SXSW mega-conference, there were signs of new interest from the tech industry.

AUSTIN, Texas—The Pentagon has put down roots in Texas. And while protests here around defense technology and human rights have persisted, the tech industry’s relationship with the Defense Department is hitting a new stride. 

As pedicabs whizzed by pedestrians in bright “SXSW 2024” gear on a colorful Congress Avenue corner, a purple-and-white sign stood out: “#dodXtech”.

It’s a scene that was almost unimaginable in 2018 when Google and Microsoft employees protested their companies’ involvement in Project Maven—an AI-driven surveillance program designed to make sense of objects in a trove of image data points. That program has since grown, even though Google exited amid employee protests. (The company has since gone on to help the Pentagon on several projects, including cloud computing, AI, and cybersecurity.)

There’s been a notable tide change in how Silicon Valley sees and talks about national security, with CEOs like Palantir’s Alex Karp openly supporting DOD and aid in foreign conflicts. But those waves haven’t wiped away all the protests: Karp said employees have left the company over his views.

Moreover, several musical acts set to participate in SXSW pulled out of the event—which spotlights music, food, tech, and film—to protest the Army’s sponsorship and U.S. military aid to Israel. 

Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott told the protesting bands not to come back, and “if you don’t like it, don’t come here” in a social media post from his personal account. SXSW swiftly condemned the governor’s comments, and issued statements of support for the protesters and human rights. 

“We are an organization that welcomes diverse viewpoints. Music is the soul of SXSW, and it has long been our legacy. We fully respect the decision these artists made to exercise their right to free speech,” SXSW wrote, later adding that the Army’s sponsorship was part of the conference’s commitment to showcase world-shaping ideas. “The defense industry has historically been a proving ground for many of the systems we rely on today. These institutions are often leaders in emerging technologies, and we believe it’s better to understand how their approach will impact our lives.”

The Defense Department has increased its footprint in Austin in recent years, with a clear goal of nestling in an emerging tech hub with the best talent. And so far it seems to have worked.

The #dodXtech corner was just blocks away from Army Futures Command’s headquarters and the Capital Factory, a coworking space that’s home to AFWERX, NavalX, the Army’s Software Factory, and its Applications Lab. Saronic, which is based in Austin, brought its six-foot undersea drone and Vertex Solutions had an F-16 flight training simulator. 

The protests that week harkened back to a time that seems longer ago than it was. But in the years since, the rallying cry spurred difficult conversations between the Pentagon and the public—and within the building. It also led to the creation of ethical AI principles the department vows to uphold as it looks to use the technology more.

Sue Gordon, the former deputy director of national intelligence, said the government has learned from past clashes with the public, such as the revelations from former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. 

“I think the partnership is so much better than it's been in the past. And I think we've gone through this arc,” she said during a panel at the conference. “There was nothing good about it happening, but given that it happened, we learned a lot of things about it. About the government having to be more transparent, more responsible to the American people that give it its power, more thoughtful.” 

A lot of that is due to a shift in how the government talks about what it does—and it seems to be resonating. 

“So I think there's a lot of good stuff that the government has learned, especially in this world where everything is known to everybody. Being able to articulate what you're doing in a responsible manner is super important,” said Gordon, who is director of CACI International and a member of the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Board.  

Gordon stressed that success in this new phase of the government-industrial relationship also hinges on being able to balance risk and responsibility. 

“And the reason we have to work together is you don't want the government to have to over-regulate, because it loves that tool. And it makes it too slow. And you don't want the private sector to be on their own because they won't think about the responsibility that they're bearing because they can only think about what they're offering, not about what it costs,” she said. 

“This could be a new era where we all see the global risks so clearly…that it's in that risk management of these power and peril technologies that give us the best chance to win together. But both sides have to recognize that they need the other one.”

Another sign of a warming relationship between DOD and tech enthusiasts: two conference-goers gushing about how they came to SXSW just to see the Army panel on AI and autonomy. 

I was sitting with Casey Perley, executive director of the Army’s tech incubator, when news of the protests broke. She said more than a hundred companies had come by for office hours over the past few days—something that makes the SXSW platform valuable. 

“We actually had a young lady who came in today, whose whole premise was she wanted to use technology to make war less deadly. And where else except an event like South By, could she just walk in and have a conversation with the Army, who in her mind is probably developing technologies that are designed for lethality,” Perley said.

“And not only do we have that conversation, we were able to actually give her the names of some professors…in the [Washington, D.C.] area who were thinking through this and working on these types of things. So I think that's what's so special about the Army being at South By, and AAL being engaged in South By, is that we can have these conversations that we never would have had otherwise.”