The Defense Innovation Unit, an organization within the Department of Defense focused on adopting commercial technology, is building an Uber-like app called “Gig Eagle” to match part-time service members possessing private sector experience with program managers.
"We are creating a gig economy for the Department of Defense," Sarah Pearson, a DIU executive, said during an AI Week SNG Live panel, FedScoop reported. "You could think about it almost like an Uber but for the DoD."
In December, the Defense Innovation Unit received an additional $20 million from Congress to expand its research and development budget for space programs. $3 million went to Gig Eagle, the Uber-like app that was pitched as a "talent management pilot application."
DIU told Motherboard in an email that the program is in its early phases of development, so it's unclear what the program will end up looking like. One immediate concern that arises, however, is the fact that the DoD is eagerly invoking the gig economy, which itself is an amalgamation of labor law loopholes and exploits. Whether that means service members will be subject to hellish working conditions, meager pay, a lack of benefits, and little to nothing in the way of fair labor practices remains to be seen. However, the program appears to generally be a way for military programs to quickly and easily find personnel (for example a reservist who works a day job as a programmer) who can use their skills where and when they’re needed.
Maaike Verbruggen, a doctoral researcher at the International Security Center where she focuses on military technologies and innovation, told Motherboard there’s a real need driving the development of this app.
“First, the DoD is really lacking in technical talent. The way career trajectories are structured don't really reward or value technical skills, so the technical talent it does have, is not necessarily used to its full potential. This is seen as one of the biggest obstacles for military innovation,” Verbruggen told Motherboard. “But a second and more abstract reason is the general fetishization of Silicon Valley innovation culture at the DoD.”
This makes sense, not just because the DIU is headquartered in Silicon Valley or because its top executives (including Pearson, who previously worked at Google) once worked there, but because the Pentagon has always had close ties with Silicon Valley. Margaret O'Mara, a historian at the University of Washington, wrote a deep dive into this history that not only highlighted "the simultaneous alignment of the countrys' political, cultural, and technical elites around the view tha Silicon Valley held the key to the future" but also "the profound role that the US government played in Silicon Valley's rise."
“The technologies that are currently hip and desired in the DoD, and seen as necessary for strategic competition with China, are more than ever pioneered by the tech sector. There is a big push to reform procurement to be able to buy more Commercial Off the Shelf products from Silicon Valley (because this is much faster and cheaper) or to hire Silicon Valley companies for R&D projects (like Project Maven),” added Verbruggen. “But the DoD does not only aim to acquire their technologies, their workforce, or develop a closer relation with their companies—it also wants to innovate how it innovates and reform the structure of its military innovation process to be more in line with Silicon Valley.
That danger in emulating Silicon Valley along with saber-rattling about a Chinese threat are manifest most clearly in some of the DoD’s closest Silicon Valley partners. Eric Schmidt—former chairman and chief executive of Google, current chairman of the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence and the Defense Innovation Board—wrote an op-ed last year warning that if the United States government didn’t support Silicon Valley in competing with China, our very way of life could be threatened.
"Americans should be wary of living in a world shaped by China's view of the relationship between technology and authoritarian governance," Schmidt wrote. "Free societies must prove the resilience of liberal democracy in the face of technological changes that threaten it."
The op-ed overlooks the myriad of ways in which American technology is used to advance authoritarian and racist governance at home, but Schmidt is not the only one to make such points or oversights. Alex Karp, co-founder and chief executive of Palantir has spent years pontificating how his company is helping to his company’s “core mission” has always been "to make the West, especially America, the strongest in the world, the strongest it's ever been, for the sake of global peace and prosperity." This is why, of course, Palantir has spent years deporting undocumented migrants, as well as building an expansive surveillance dragnet for police departments nationwide.
Given this symbiotic relationship, it’s not entirely surprising that the DoD is now building something called Gig Eagle and name-checking Uber in a bid to staff up. It’s not clear what, if any, changes this app will bring or if there are actual plans to implement it in the hiring process anytime soon. Regardless, the DoD has drunk the Kool-Aid here, emulating and reinforcing every part of the narrative Silicon Valley spins about itself and its own historical inevitability.