By Alex Heath
Palmer Luckey, the 26-year-old founder of Facebook-owned Oculus VR and CEO of defense tech startup Anduril, thinks Google was wrong to not renew a controversial contract for providing artificial intelligence technology to the U.S. government.
“I can say that Google made the wrong decision pulling out on the U.S. military,” Luckey told Cheddar at the Collision conference in Toronto, Canada on Wednesday. “And they proved a lot of the old guard right.”
Following sustained outcry by Google employees who opposed working on military projects, the search giant said in June 2018 that it would not renew its contract for the Pentagon’s Project Maven, which seeks to use technology from private companies to enhance military operations like drone surveillance. According to Luckey, the decision also reflects how Google and other American tech companies have to weigh working with the U.S. government and wanting to do business in China.
“There were a lot of people in the military industrial defense complex saying [to the government], 'Don't work with Google. Don't work with these other tech companies. They're not in it for the long haul. They're influenced by the Chinese. They're going to pull out the second it gets tough because they want to have access to the Chinese market.'”
“And then when they pulled out of Project Maven, they proved all those people right,” he continued. “And that made it hard for everybody — little defense companies and bigger tech companies that want to work with the DoD [Department of Defense].”
Luckey’s comments come after The Intercept reported in March that his company, Anduril Industries, had quietly won a Pentagon contract for the same Project Maven that Google abandoned. Luckey declined to comment on the specific contract, but did say his startup is working with multiple government agencies on a range of initiatives, like the building of a virtual surveillance apparatus along parts of the Mexican border.
Thanks to his vocal support of President Donald Trump, Luckey has served as a political lightning rod in Silicon Valley. His startup Anduril is backed by the famous investor Peter Thiel, a known Trump advisor and prominent right-leaning voice in the tech industry. Luckey said that his company’s early tests of virtual border wall technology along areas of the U.S./Mexican border have been successful, and that the technology is currently being expanded to other parts of the border.
“Basically, we're building a system that tells you what everything on the border is doing,” he said. “So where are all the vehicles? Where are all of the people? Where all of the drones?”
“And then it allows Border Patrol agents to basically have full omniscience over their area of operation. So they know what they're responding to. They know how to respond effectively. And they know what kinds of threats they're facing or not facing in each individual engagement.”
After selling his previous VR company Oculus to Facebook for $2 billion, Luckey left the social media company in 2017 amidst the news that he had quietly funded a conservative group that opposed then-presidential-candidate Hillary Clinton.
Facebook has recently been met with calls that its business should be broken up by regulators, a move that current executives have said would embolden Chinese competitors in the space. Luckey didn’t go so far as to say Facebook should be broken up, but he did say that China’s global ambitions should be considered alongside any call to break up American companies.
“I've been out of the company for a few years, so it's hard for me to say that I know exactly what the solution to all of these problems are,” he said. “Also, I lean libertarian. So antitrust is not the first thing that I jumped to when I think about solving these problems.”
“That said, it is inarguably true that China does have these big tech companies, and we do generally give access to them,” he continued. “So Alibaba, Baidu, they haven't really taken off over here, but they do have access to our markets. And they are not going to be broken up.”
“The Chinese government is as protectionist as it gets,” he said. “They love to sell us stuff and keep our stuff out of their own country. They don't have any problem with flexing their muscle to unfairly reward their domestic companies. So we should keep that in mind in anything we do.”