- By Joshua Keating
Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy
The CIA’s internal quarterly journal, Studies in Intelligence, has just posted a reprint of a 1962 article, amazingly titled "Some Far-Out Thoughts on Computers." The author, Orrin Clotworthy, writing during the era of room-size computers and punch cards, predicts that computing power will revolutionize intelligence gathering, allowing analysts to predict the behavior of nations and even individuals with a degree of precision that would put Nate Silver to shame (my emphasis):
[There is rising optimism among scholars that we will some day be able to foretell the behavior of large groups of people within reasonable limits, given accurate and timely measurements of certain telltale factors. A single person, they submit, follows an erratic course, just as a single gas molecule does. But when you put enough people together many of the individual erratic actions will cancel each other out and there will emerge a collective behavior that can be formulized. To be sure, what comes out is not likely to be so simple and aesthetically satisfying as Boyle’s law for the isothermal pressure-volume relations of an ideal body of gas. Mass cause-and-effect relationships are more elusive for people than for molecules. But they must be there, somewhere and scholars are looking for them.
The impact of new breakthroughs in this area upon the intelligence business is interesting to contemplate. Possibly some American discoveries in mass human behavior patters could be kept secret for long periods to permit our unilateral exploitation of them. Let’s imagine, for example, that we discover an extremely high correlation between Tito’s popularity among the Yugoslavs and the consumption of slivovitz in that country: when the per capital absorption goes up, his stock goes down. As long as we are aware of this and he is not, we will find it profitable to collect precise data on boozing among the Yugoslavs. To keep our interest undetected, we resort to clandestine collection techniques, because once he learns of it and knows the reason why, he can adopt countermeasures, for instance doctored consumption figures. The variations in this came are endless.
What Makes Sukarno Run?
While one group of researchers, largely sociologists and political scientists, pursues the gas molecule analogy, a amore visionary one will be exploring possibilities with certain individual molecules. Can scientists ever simulate the behavior pattern of a Mao Tse-tun or a Sekou Touré? Theoretically if a man’s importance warrants it, they should be able to reduce to mathematical terms and store in an electronic memory most of his salient experience and observed reactions to varying situations. Subjecting this stain-in brain to a hypothetical set of circumstances, they could then read out his probable reaction to the event hypothesized. Here the storage problem alone would be tremendous. Even greater would be the task of teaching the computer to ignore certain stimuli while responding to others. As you read this article you are able to disregard the noise of the air conditioner nearby. It will be some time before a machine can be taught to distinguish between the relevant and the irrelevant in even this elementary fashion. Sill, by say the year 2000, I wouldn’t bet against it.
Clotworthy imagines "political weather maps" tracking likely behavior by nations. Sadly, as D.C. residents learned this week, despite massive advances in computing power, we still haven’t even gotten the regular weather maps right.
This section is both hilarious and eerie:
As a final thought, how about a machine that would send via closed-circuit television visual and oral information needed immediately at high-level conferences or briefings? Let’s say that a group of senior officers are contemplating a covert action program for Afghanistan. Things go well until someone asks, "Well, just how many schools are there in the country, and what is the literacy rate?" No one in the room knows. (Remember, this is an imaginary situation." So the junior member present dials a code number into a dvice at one end of the table. Thirty seconds later, on the screen overhead, a teletype printer begins to hammer out the reguired data. Before the meeting is over, the group has been given through the same method the names of countries that have airlines into Afghanistan, a biograhical profile of the Soviet ambassador there, and the Pakistani order of battle along the Afghnistan frontier. Neat, no?
Very neat! Today, officers have access to more information about Afghanistan than Clotworthy could ever imagine in the palms of their hands — no teletype required — though covert actions there probably haven’t gotten much easier.
Hat tip: Micah Zenko