In Ukraine, New American Technology Won the Day. Until It Got Overwhelmed.

The idea triggered a full-scale revolt on the Google campus.

Six years ago, the Silicon Valley giant signed a small, $9 million contract to put the skills of a few of its most innovative developers to the task of building an artificial intelligence tool that would help the military detect potential targets on the battlefield using drone footage.

Engineers and other Google employees argued that the company should have nothing to do with Project Maven, even if it was designed to help the military discern between civilians and militants.

The uproar forced the company to back out, but Project Maven didn’t die — it just moved to other contractors. Now, it has grown into an ambitious experiment being tested on the front lines in Ukraine, forming a key component of the U.S. military’s effort to funnel timely information to the soldiers fighting Russian invaders.

So far the results are mixed: Generals and commanders have a new way to put a full picture of Russia’s movements and communications into one big, user-friendly picture, employing algorithms to predict where troops are moving and where attacks might happen.

But the American experience in Ukraine has underscored how difficult it is to get 21st-century data into 19th-century trenches. Even with Congress on the brink of providing tens of billions of dollars in aid to Kyiv, mostly in the form of ammunition and long-range artillery, the question remains whether the new technology will be enough to help turn the tide of the war at a moment when the Russians appear to have regained momentum.

‘This Became Our Laboratory’

The war in Ukraine has, in the minds of many American officials, been a bonanza for the U.S. military, a testing ground for Project Maven and other rapidly evolving technologies. The American-made drones that were shipped into Ukraine last year were blown out of the sky with ease. And Pentagon officials now understand, in a way they never did before, that America’s system of military satellites has to be built and set up entirely differently, with configurations that look more like Elon Musk’s Starlink constellations of small satellites.

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