When you think of the companies that profit off of war, you typically think of domestic defense contractors like Boeing, that consistently rake in money from U.S. conflict abroad. However, the modern military industrial complex has a new, ugly, tech-bro face.
As reported by Mark Harris for The Guardian, two different Silicon Valley startups specializing in unpiloted vehicles—Kitty Hawk and Joby Aviation—received $1 million and $970,000 last year in order to develop unpiloted, one-person, electric planes for military purposes. The money came from the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental division (DIUx), the Pentagon’s middleman that provides contracts to companies whose tech products could have military promise.
According to Harris, the funding was not disclosed at the time that it was awarded. And since Both Kitty Hawk and and Joby Aviation opt not to disclose product pricing on their websites, so we don’t know exactly how many taxi units that they’ve been funded to create per its DIUx contract. Kitty Hawk and and Joby Aviation did not immediately respond to request for comment.
Products like unpiloted taxi planes are rarely presented as having any military potential. Consider the promotional video for the Kitty Hawk Coba: it quite explicitly frames its product as having civilian potential and nothing else.
“It travels in a straight line, and it will never have to stop at a traffic light,” Eric Allison, Kitty Hawk's Vice President of engineering for Cora, said in the video. “And lastly, Cora is self-piloted, which means that to get where you wanna go, you don’t need a pilot’s license.”
Similarly, Joby Aviation raised $100 million last year from companies like Intel, Toyota, and JetBlue. Little information was publicly available about the fundraising effort, aside from the fact that the money would be used to fund flight tests. However, we know now that DIUx was also one of the firms that bankrolled Joby Aviation last year, and we have basically no information about the specific possible uses of its air taxis.
These companies have presented themselves to the public using very rosy rhetoric of personal, individual empowerment, of giving people the freedom to move at a lower environmental cost than commercial planes (which, as an industry, is one of the biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions). Supposedly, they want to improve lives. But the integrity of that language falls short when they’re being developed for military applications that are kept from the public, and whose specifics remain undisclosed.
DIUx has contracts with a host of companies, many of which are based out of Silicon Valley. One of these companies is Palantir, Peter Thiel's data analytics company. According to reporting by Bloomberg, it’s been awarded contracts with police departments around the country, including the Los Angeles Police Department, to gather a person’s name, address, license plates, physical appearance, and neighborhood "intelligence" and generate a "score" individuals supposedly at risk of committing a crime and suggest heightened surveillance. Palantir was granted a U.S. Air Force contract to "integrate disparate data sources" in 2017.
Other companies like SailDrone—a small, solar-powered, remotely-controlled, unmanned boat—were seemingly created in the spirit of genuinely wanting to make the world a better place. According to a Bloomberg profile of the company, founder Richard Jenkins created Saildrone in order to help marine biologists and oceanologists gather precious, rare ocean data in areas of the ocean so remote that humans are at risk just by travelling there. The company was given a DIUx contract for "persistent maritime awareness" in 2016.
It’s not that any of this is completely unfamiliar. In an initiative that started in the Bush administration, proliferated in the Obama administration, and has kept steady in the Trump administration, drones have been used to monitor and bomb people abroad thousands of people abroad, including hundreds and hundreds of civilians. We still don’t know what the exact number of the civilian deaths are, and the government has historically expressed little confidence about the accuracy of its drone strikes. For years, the DIUx has provided millions of dollars in contracts to Silicon Valley based companies that manufacture drones.
It’s a bleak vision of the future, and what happens when people start out wanting to change the world for the better: ideas that could advance science and theoretically improve other people’s lives end up taking tempting bounties from the U.S. military in order to advance a foreign agenda—and in the midst of it all, the specific details are kept from the public.
Military funded tech ventures don’t have to end badly: for instance, the internet would not have been possible had it not been for Cold War era military funding from the U.S. government. Arguably, in my opinion, the internet is a net good for humanity. But a global database for information and network for communication is much different than an unpiloted vehicle coasting over some foreign territory with the capacity to surveill at best, and commit murder at worst.
Hear the making of this article and additional thoughts from Caroline Haskins on The Outline World Dispatch. Listen later on your favorite app or device below.