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Meet the classified artificial brain being developed by US intelligence programs

At the final session of the 2019 Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, attendees straggled into a giant ballroom to listen to an Air Force official and a National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) executive discuss, as the panel title put it, “Enterprise Disruption.” The presentation stayed as vague as the title until a direct question from the audience seemed to make the panelists squirm.

Just how good, the person wondered, had the military and intelligence communities’ algorithms gotten at interpreting data and taking action based on that analysis? They pointed out that the commercial satellite industry has software that can tally shipping containers on cargo ships and cars in parking lots soon after their pictures are snapped in space. “When will the Department of Defense have real-time, automated, global order of battle?” they asked.

“That’s a great question,” said Chirag Parikh, director of the NGA’s Office of Sciences and Methodologies. “And there’s a lot of really good classified answers.”

He paused and shifted in his seat. “What’s the next question?” he asked, smiling. But he continued talking, describing how “geospatial intelligence” no longer simply means pictures from satellites. It means anything with a timestamp and a location stamp, and the attempt to integrate all that sundry data.

Then, Parikh actually answered this question: When would that translate to near-instantaneous understanding and strategy development?

“If not now,” he said, “very soon.”

Parkih didn’t mention any particular programs that might help enable this kind of autonomous, real-time interpretation. But an initiative called Sentient has relevant capabilities. A product of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), Sentient is (or at least aims to be) an omnivorous analysis tool, capable of devouring data of all sorts, making sense of the past and present, anticipating the future, and pointing satellites toward what it determines will be the most interesting parts of that future. That, ideally, makes things simpler downstream for human analysts at other organizations, like the NGA, with which the satellite-centric NRO partners.

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