US intelligence agencies’ embrace of generative AI is at once wary and urgent

BY  FRANK BAJAK
May 23, 2024

ARLINGTON, Virginia (AP) — Long before generative AI’s boom, a Silicon Valley firm contracted to collect and analyze non-classified data on illicit Chinese fentanyl trafficking made a compelling case for its embrace by U.S. intelligence agencies.

The operation’s results far exceeded human-only analysis, finding twice as many companies and 400% more people engaged in illegal or suspicious commerce in the deadly opioid.

Excited U.S. intelligence officials touted the results publicly — the AI made connections based mostly on internet and dark-web data — and shared them with Beijing authorities, urging a crackdown.

One important aspect of the 2019 operation, called Sable Spear, that has not previously been reported: The firm used generative AI to provide U.S. agencies — three years ahead of the release of OpenAI’s groundbreaking ChatGPT product — with evidence summaries for potential criminal cases, saving countless work hours.

“You wouldn’t be able to do that without artificial intelligence,” said Brian Drake, the Defense Intelligence Agency’s then-director of AI and the project coordinator.

The contractor, Rhombus Power, would later use generative AI to predict Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine with 80% certainty four months in advance, for a different U.S. government client. Rhombus says it also alerts government customers, who it declines to name, to imminent North Korean missile launches and Chinese space operations.

U.S. intelligence agencies are scrambling to embrace the AI revolution, believing they’ll otherwise be smothered by exponential data growth as sensor-generated surveillance tech further blankets the planet.

But officials are acutely aware that the tech is young and brittle, and that generative AI — prediction models trained on vast datasets to generate on-demand text, images, video and human-like conversation — is anything but tailor-made for a dangerous trade steeped in deception.

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