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Tech Workers Now Want to Know: What Are We Building This For?

Category: Economy,Finance

“What people are looking for — not just employees — they are looking for some clarity,” said Frank Shaw, a Microsoft spokesman. “Are there principles that get applied? Even if you don’t agree with the decision that gets made, if you understand the thinking behind it, it helps a lot.”

Amazon did not respond to a request for comment.

The lack of information about what tech employees are working on was recently evident at Clarifai, an artificial intelligence start-up in New York City.

Last year, a small team of Clarifai engineers began working on a project inside a private room at its downtown New York office, said three people with knowledge of the matter, who spoke on the condition that they not be identified for fear of retaliation. Paper covered the windows, and employees called the room “The Chamber of Secrets,” in a sly reference to the second Harry Potter novel. Even the eight engineers and researchers working inside the room did not entirely realize the nature of the project, the people said.

When employees asked about the project in meetings, Clarifai’s chief executive, Matt Zeiler, said it was a government project related to “analytics” or “surveillance” and would “save lives,” according to the people.

After employees read documents posted to Clarifai’s internal systems, it became clear that the company had won a contract for Project Maven and that workers were creating something for the Defense Department, the people said. One engineer quit the project immediately after a meeting with the Defense Department where killing was discussed in frank terms, they said.

A Clarifai spokesman said that at the very beginning of the project, the company sat down with those chosen for it to brief them on the nature of the work, and one employee quit the project then. “Every member of Clarifai’s Project Maven team agreed to work on the project, and the two people who chose not to participate were assigned to different efforts across the company,” the spokesman said.

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