Defense Innovation Board Director Moves to Google

The executive director of the Defense Innovation Board, Joshua Marcuse, speaks at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Washington, D.C., Oct. 10, 2018.

The executive director of the Defense Innovation Board, Joshua Marcuse, speaks at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Washington, D.C., Oct. 10, 2018. Lisa Ferdinando/Defense Department

It’s another sign of the healing relationship between the Defense Department and big tech.

One of Pentagon’s biggest champions for tech innovation and better partnership with Silicon Valley is moving to Google, the company will announce on Monday.

Josh Marcuse, executive director of the Defense Innovation Board, will join Google as head of strategy and innovation for global public sector, a job that touches the company’s sales efforts to the Defense Department and other national-security agencies, state and local governments, and other countries.

Then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter established the Defense Innovation Board in 2016 to bring best-of-practice solutions into DoD, solutions championed by tech celebrities such as Eric Schmidt, who chairs both the board and Google Alphabet. The board’s advice has shaped Defense projects like the JEDI cloud and the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center.

Google’s relationship with the Defense Department has been rather tumultuous over the last several years. In August 2017, then-Defense Secretary James Mattis made Google a key stop on a tour of big tech companies. Sources told Defense One that Mattis was impressed by how enterprise cloud services helped the company become an AI powerhouse. Shortly after, the Pentagon began to pursue its own enterprise cloud, dubbed JEDI. 

But the relationship took a tough turn in April 2018 when 3,100 Google employees signed a letter protesting Google’s participation in Project Maven, one of the Department’s seminal AI efforts. The employee backlash helped persuade the company to withdraw from competing for the JEDI contract.

The company has since published a list of AI ethical standards, which reopen the door to collaboration with the Defense Department in ways that are less likely to incite employee revolt. Last November, Google vice president Kent Walker said that the company was eager to take more Defense contracts, so long as the work aligned with its published principles and guidelines. 

Some of that work would be led by Marcuse, who said attitudes are changing in the Pentagon as well. 

“I think we’ve seen, especially in the last two years, a healthy embrace of the tech sector, a recognition of how important that partnership is,” he said in an interview.

Most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought forth a new willingness to collaborate between the government and the tech sector. This month, Google and other companies announced that they would develop contact tracing apps in a bid to help governments map transmissions as lockdown efforts wane. And the company joined IBM, Amazon, and others in an Energy Department consortium that aims to give researchers access to high-performance computing resources at Google and elsewhere to study the virus, the economic effects of various policies, and other COVID-19-related issues. 

“One of the things about my last job that I cared about was building the bridge between Washington and Silicon Valley,” 38 year-old Marcuse said. “That collaborative relationship is an important thing for our citizens getting the government they deserve and protecting our democractic values.”

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