The Cable

The Robots Will Run the CIA, Too

The U.S. agency is very interested in artificial intelligence.

ISTANBUL, TURKEY - MAY 06:  People view historical documents and photographs displayed in a high tech art installation at Salt Galata on May 6, 2017 in Istanbul, Turkey. The "Archive Dreaming" installation by artist Refik Anadol uses artificial intelligence to visualize nearly 2 million historical Ottoman documents and photographs from the SALT Research Archive. Controlled by a single tablet in the center of a mirrored room the artist used machine learning algorithms to combine historical documents, art, graphics and photographs to create an immersive installation allowing people to scroll, read and explore the archives. The SALT Galata archives include around 1.7 million documents ranging from the late-Ottoman era to the present day. The exhibition is on show at SALT Galata art space through till June 11, 2017.  (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
ISTANBUL, TURKEY - MAY 06: People view historical documents and photographs displayed in a high tech art installation at Salt Galata on May 6, 2017 in Istanbul, Turkey. The "Archive Dreaming" installation by artist Refik Anadol uses artificial intelligence to visualize nearly 2 million historical Ottoman documents and photographs from the SALT Research Archive. Controlled by a single tablet in the center of a mirrored room the artist used machine learning algorithms to combine historical documents, art, graphics and photographs to create an immersive installation allowing people to scroll, read and explore the archives. The SALT Galata archives include around 1.7 million documents ranging from the late-Ottoman era to the present day. The exhibition is on show at SALT Galata art space through till June 11, 2017. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

The CIA currently has 137 different artificial intelligence pilot projects underway, according to a senior agency official.

Dawn Meyerriecks, the CIA’s deputy director for science and technology, told an audience at the annual Intelligence and National Security Summit in Washington that the agency has a “punch list” of different artificial intelligence problems that it wants the private sector to work on. The CIA is already coordinating this work with In-Q-Tel, the agency’s venture capital firm, she said.

The intelligence community has been eyeing artificial intelligence and machine learning to replace some of the tedious tasks its analysts perform for a while now. In June, Robert Cardillo, the director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, vowed to bring in robots to do 75 percent of the tasks currently being done by employees to analyze and interpret images beamed in from feeds around the globe and in space.

The CIA and other intelligence agencies have been investing in artificial intelligence for decades, and the technology is already prevalent in certain security applications including facial and voice recognition. But there are a growing number of more ambitious practical applications, including in detecting malicious hacking online and helping pilot drones and other autonomous vehicles.

The transition from analyst to robot won’t necessarily be seamless, however. Replacing analysts with algorithms is troubling to some who believe humans are irreplaceable in the delicate art of intelligence. “We can’t just feed [information] into a black box,” Meyerriecks said. “We can’t go to leadership with recommendations when we don’t understand what happened in the middle.”

But intelligence officials are warning that adversaries and competitors like Russia and China are competing for similar capabilities.

Some technology that was proprietary even 10 years ago in the United States is “mass-produced in China today,” Brian Sadler, a senior research scientist for intelligence systems for the U.S. Army, said during another panel at the conference.

Meyerriecks, however, said she was confident in the United States’ long-term ability to outpace its opponents. “If there’s a bear in the woods, I just have to be faster than the slowest person,” she said.

Photo credit: CHRIS McGRATH/Getty Images

Jenna McLaughlin is Foreign Policy's intelligence reporter. You can reach her on Signal at 203-537-3949. @JennaMC_Laugh

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