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A Palantir exec described the company's secretive AI drone program as 'this generation's Manhattan Project'


Palantir CEO Alex Karp

  • Palantir executive Shyam Sankar described the company's work developing AI targeting capabilities for drones as "this generation's Manhattan Project," according to two people familiar with the comments.
  • The comments, made during a January all-hands meeting, come as the company expands its work on "Project Maven," a department of defense project which Google stopped working on in March following protests inside of the company.
  • Sankar also told employees the company was profitable in 2019, the people said, though it's not clear by what metric.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Secretive data analytics firm Palantir believes its work helping drones autonomously identify enemy targets is as urgent and important as America's race to develop a nuclear weapon during World War II, two sources have told Business Insider.

At a company all-hands meeting earlier this month, Palantir President Shyam Sankar described Project Maven, the artificial intelligence defense initiative that Palantir joined after Google announced its departure in 2018, as "this generation's Manhattan Project," according to two sources with knowledge of the meeting.

Sankar's remarks served as a rallying cry for beleaguered staffers at the Peter Thiel-backed company, which has struggled to balance lucrative government and military contracts with growing ethical concerns from employees, one of the people said.

Palantir started working on Project Maven, a Pentagon effort to develop artificial intelligence software capable of independently interpreting drone imagery and identifying potential targets, in 2018 after Google announced it would pull out in the face of protests from employees who decried the company's participation in the "business of war." 

Critics of the project describe it as a major step toward autonomous weapons that could select and destroy targets without human intervention. 

One person familiar with Palantir's role in Project Maven said that the company's initial task was to train drones to analyze potential targets against ground terrain, but that it has recently expanded into building tools that can identify objects on oceans and seas.

Read more: Palantir grabbed Project Maven defense contract after Google left the program: sources

It's unclear how much the Project Maven contract is worth to Palantir — Google's contract was reportedly worth up to $250 million per year — but it appears to be helping the bottom line: Sankar also told employees at the all-hands that the company had achieved profitability, the sources said. It wasn't immediately apparent on what basis he made that claim.

Palantir co-founder and CEO Alex Karp made a similar claim in two video messages sent to employees in December and January. One of those videos, sources said, featured Karp taking a break from snow skiing to address the camera.

Palantir, now in its 17th year of operation, has struggled to justify the $20 billion valuation it received in its most recent 2015 funding round. Co-founder Joe Lonsdale told the Wall Street Journal last year that it would likely be "a few years" before the company is ready for an initial public offering — a timeline that stretches the limits of what most venture capital firms regard as feasible for realizing returns on their investments.

Private shares, which make up the bulk of compensation for many employees, have seen little movement on the secondary markets in recent years, leaving many shareholders without an exit opportunity. 

In December, the company announced a $110 million contract with the Army to build a military readiness tool which pulls together data about soldiers, including location and mental health status, to establish which troops are ready for deployment. 

Palantir is currently competing for a similar military readiness contract with the Air Force, and a battlefield intelligence project with the Navy, one of the sources told Business Insider. In March, Palantir won a similar Army contract for battlefield intelligence, known as Distributed Common Ground System or DCGS, which is worth as much as $800 million. 

In 2019, Palantir faced internal pushback from employees over its work to help Immigration and Customs Enforcement digitally profile targets for deportation. Karp ultimately decided to renew its contract, valued around $50 million, in September.

The Grace Hopper Celebration, which is the world's largest conference for women in computing, dropped Palantir as a sponsor in August because it gives "direct technology assistance that enables the human rights abuses of asylum seekers and their children at US southern border detention centers," Robert Read, an executive with the conference's parent company, told Business Insider at the time.

Other tech CEOs have taken the controversy as an opportunity to speak out in favor of defense contracts. In December, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said the US tech industry has an obligation to support the Pentagon.

"I know it's complicated but you know, do you want a strong national defense or don't you? I think you do. So we have to support that,"Bezos said at the annual Reagan National Defense Forum, in reference to Project Maven. "We are the good guys, I really do believe that."

At the World Economic Forum in Davos Switzerland on Thursday, Karp stood by the company's decision to work with ICE to find "people in our country who are undocumented," though he conceded that some employees left the company over the issue.

″​The core mission of our company always was 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, and we feel like this year we really showed what that would mean," Karp said in an interview with CNBC.

When asked by CNBC about the Business Insider report on Project Maven, Karp stopped short of confirming the contract.

"If this were true, I'd be very proud," he told CNBC.

Palantir declined to comment.

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SEE ALSO: The founders of a billion-dollar Israeli spyware startup accused of helping Saudi Arabia attack dissidents are funding a web of new companies that hack into smart speakers, routers, and other devices

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