INTERNATIONAL

The Valley of AI draws the ire of students

The authorities’ plan to turn Tübingen, a small city in southern Germany best known for its eponymous university, into an investment hub for artificial intelligence (AI) met with a hurdle last week when students and activists organised a demonstration.

Some of the companies that are making investments in this initiative, known as Cyber Valley, have close ties with the defence sector. The protesting students said that they opposed both the “commercialisation” and “militarisation” of research.

“We decided to protest against these plans. We don’t want to have any kind of militarisation, neither of our university nor of our city,” said Maximillian Jan, 23, a student of political science and part of a far-left group. Together with other students, he occupied one of the university buildings.

Tübingen has already become an investment destination for AI projects under Cyber Valley. Researchers from around the world visit the Valley regularly to explore projects. Political elites like the city’s Mayor continue to praise these developments. They deny any kind of militarisation of the city and argue that commercialisation of research has become inevitable. “I am worried that there is some fundamentalist resistance [against the Cyber Valley]. But it has absolutely nothing to do with militarisation and industrialisation. The idea that research never has to have commercial benefits is absurd. In such a case, you have to shut down major parts of the university,” said Tübingen Mayor Boris Palmer.

Technology giants like Google and Amazon are also involved in projects in the city. “We know that Google continues to research AI to help the U.S. military’s robot drones. Amazon also mishandles the data of millions of people,” said Mr. Jan.

Last March, Google’s involvement with Project Maven, a Pentagon programme, was revealed: the company is helping the U.S. government analyse drone footage by using AI. After a fierce backlash from both Google employees and technology critics, who see automated warfare as a dangerous slippery slope with ethical implications, Google decided to leave the programme after 2019. Reportedly, the U.S. military is now developing armed drones with AI. In fact, such weapons have already been tested in U.S. bases.

“I think it is really important to call attention to such issues. But in today’s world, it has become more and more difficult to really prevent such developments. Digitisation is everywhere and often it’s not easy to see to what it is linked to,” said Radwan Ali, 27, a student of media science at the university.

Military ties

Students also pointed out the presence of a number of smaller companies in the Cyber Valley that have close military ties. Syss is known for its work with the German military. According to anti-militarisation observers, it is preventing hacker attacks. Atos, another new firm in Tübingen, is mainly responsible for border surveillance and digital detection.

Several AI companies that have made investments in the Valley are involved with Airbus Defence & Space, which is running the German military’s surveillance satellites. The company is also known for running the military’s surveillance drones in war-hit countries like Mali and Afghanistan. Germany’s very first armed drones are going to be run by it.

“They [the government and the university leadership] turn their back to these facts. We will not accept that. But we also have to create more awareness in general for these issues,” said another student protester, who did not want to be named.

A German city’s plan to invite tech giants to make investments in AI projects has drawn the ire of students, who said they won’t support the commercialisation and militarisation of research

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