- Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt told the US special forces’ top general “you absolutely suck at machine learning,” The New York Times reported Saturday.
- The comments came in 2016 during Schmidt’s push to expand his influence over the US military’s strategy around technology and innovation, The New York Times reported.
- Schmidt now sits on two Department of Defense advisory boards, but his new roles have sparked allegations that he could be trying to sway business to Google or startups where he has financial ties, according to The New York Times.
- Recently, Schmidt has advocated publicly on several recent occasions for the federal government to rely more heavily on tech giants like Google, Amazon, and Apple.
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Eric Schmidt, former CEO and chairman of Google, has spent years trying to convince the US military to become more tech-savvy — and to listen to his advice on how to do it — in a campaign marked at times by hubris and allegations of conflicts of interest, according to a Saturday report from The New York Times.
One such moment came in 2016, when Raymond Thomas, a four-star general and head of the US Special Operations Command, gave Schmidt a tour of the group’s headquarters in Tampa, Florida, where the two discussed artificial intelligence, the Times reported.
“You absolutely suck at machine learning,” Schmidt told Thomas, adding: “If I got under your tent for a day, I could solve most of your problems,” Thomas recalled to the Times.
Earlier that year, Schmidt had agreed to head a new Pentagon innovation advisory board launched by former Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and aimed at bringing innovation and best practices from Silicon Valley to the US military.
Schmidt grew his influence substantially in the following years. He gained unprecedented access and travel privileges at the Department of Defense, including permission to talk to anyone about all but the most secret programs, raising concerns given Schmidt’s ties to Google, according to ProPublica.
In one incident, Schmidt asked a DoD official which cloud provider the agency was using for a project and, when the official replied Amazon, he asked if they would consider switching providers, ProPublica reported, noting that the ethics officer who called attention to the potential conflict of interest and the DoD’s unusual deference to Schmidt was later removed from the innovation board.
Schmidt has also served as the chairman of the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence since its inception in 2019, advising the federal government on how to navigate the rapidly evolving field.
Both through his two advisory positions as well as publicly, as the Times reported, Schmidt has sought to influence the military’s strategy, advocating for an approach where tech giants like Google, Amazon, and Apple play an outsize role in the federal government’s digital infrastructure.
In a recent op-ed for The New York Times, Schmidt argued the US government should massively increase its investment in technologies like AI, 5G networks, and cloud computing to maintain its economic and geopolitical competitiveness with China.
“Americans should be wary of living in a world shaped by China’s view of the relationship between technology and authoritarian governance,” he wrote. “Free societies must prove the resilience of liberal democracy in the face of technological changes that threaten it.”
In an April interview with The Economic Club of New York and a March op-ed for The Wall Street Journal, Schmidt also argued that the US government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the need for tech firms to step in.
“Companies like Amazon know how to supply and distribute efficiently,” Schmidt wrote. “They will need to provide services and advice to government officials who lack the computing systems and expertise.”
But Schmidt’s advocacy on behalf of the tech industry has also drawn scrutiny into whether he steered government contracts toward businesses that could benefit him financially or failed to disclose those ties.
The nonprofit organization Electronic Privacy and Information Center (EPIC) sued Schmidt last year, alleging the two advisory boards he chairs weren’t being sufficiently transparent with the public about their decision-making and recommendations to the US government.
EPIC told The New York Times that it was concerned about Schmidt’s investment in Rebellion Defense, a startup that analyzes drone video footage. Schmidt had been a proponent of such technology while at Google, but the initiative, called “Project Maven,” was eventually abandoned after it sparked controversy internally.
Chris Lynch, CEO of Rebellion, told the Times that Schmidt had only advised the company on hiring and growth and didn’t use his position with the DoD to lobby the agency to do business with Rebellion.
A spokesperson for Schmidt declined to provide further comment to Business Insider on the Times article.
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