Thursday, March 23, 2017

Terror: can AI help?

My go-to guy on the Labour Left, Phil Burton-Cartledge, had this to say about yesterday's terror attack in central London.
"And, in a very rare instance, I'm going to defend the intelligence services. There is a very good chance the assailant was on a terror watch list. It's quite possible he had been or was presently under surveillance.

"Inevitably, the questions will be asked why he wasn't detected and/or picked up before now and prevented from undertaking this afternoon's attack. Again, while it's right such issues should be explored, lessons drawn and, if there is a case of egregious carelessness that those responsible be held to account, what really has to be asked is what could have been done differently?

Thankfully, we don't have indefinite detention without trial of suspects, but unless there are teams on standby covering the move of every single suspect then the answer has to be very little.

"Watching someone getting into their car and driving into central London is not immediately suggestive of suspicious activity. There is no way his intent to kill could be inferred before the car mounted the pavement and started accelerating towards passers by.

"This kind of attack is next to impossible to prevent if someone is so minded to carry it out."
These are very good points. But could AI have helped prevent the attack?

There are two issues to separate:
  • recognising that an attack is in progress
  • dealing with it.
Both are difficult.

Modern naval vessels are subject to attack from hypervelocity sea-skimming missiles. The time between detection and impact is short - too short to allow humans in the defence loop. The ship's AI monitors sensor systems such as radar, and has direct control over its terminal defence systems. An example would be the Phalanx.

If the AI gets it wrong and is too aggressive .. well, stuff happens in the military.


Deep Learning systems are typically trained on vast datasets, essential to extract the relevant classificatory features from the enormous space of relevant variations.
  • I doubt we have large datasets of events as rare and varied as 'Islamic terrorist attacks'.

  • I therefore doubt we could extract a definitive feature set which would reliably partition attacks from the myriad of events which define normal life.

Still, in more constrained situation such as an entranceway, you could create plenty of simulation data of intruders armed with knives or guns and I suspect a recogniser could be made to work. The police or guards would call in an attack anyway, so the AI system might buy you only a few seconds (and I'd be worried about all those false positives and false negatives).

But it would really come into its own if it could be linked to a fast response system.

I rather admire those security guys who take-down armed assailants. Almost all of the time on their watch, nothing bad is happening. Then comes an exceedingly rare event which they have to classify within seconds as requiring lethal force - and get it right. The natural human reaction would be to hold off for fear of making a catastrophic error. It's a hard call.

In Richard K. Morgan's SF pulp noir "Altered Carbon", the AI system at the 'Hendrix Hotel' takes out hero Takeshi Kovacs's attackers (once he has thumb-printed his contract!):
"I straightened again and snapped my hand out to the keypad beside the screen. Traces of fresh spittle smeared over the matt black receiver. A split second later a calloused palm edge cracked into the left side of my skull and I collapsed to my hands and knees on the floor. A boot lashed into my face and I went the rest of the way down.

'Thank you sir.' I heard the voice of the hotel through a roaring in my head. 'Your account is being processed.'

I tried to get up and got a second boot in the ribs for the trouble. Blood dripped from my nose onto the carpet. The barrel of the gun ground into my neck.

'That wasn't smart, Kovacs.' The voice was marginally less calm. 'If you think the cops are going to trace us where you're going, then the stack must have fucked your brain. Now get up! '

He was pulling me to my feet when the thunder cut loose.

Why someone had seen fit to equip the Hendrix's security systems with twenty-millimetre automatic cannon was beyond me, but they did the job with devastating totality. Out of the corner of one eye I glimpsed the twin-mounted auto-turret come snaking down from the ceiling just a moment before it channelled a three-second burst of fire through my primary assailant. Enough fire-power to bring down a small aircraft. The noise was deafening. "
Decisions which seem difficult when you're thinking at human speeds seem a lot more tractable when time is slowed by a factor of ten or one hundred .. or when thinking speed is cranked up by a similar amount.

Something tells me the Hendrix Hotel is the way of the future.


  1. Shouldnt we be considering the whole 5G-AI-InternetofThings Network in this - not just an isolated AI?

    A human driver of a vehicle would be unusual event whose movements would need to be tracked by an onboard 5G-RFID to assist traffic movement. It is possible that such cars would not be allowed to go near larger pedestrian areas. Also this week an 80 yr old driver was convicted of having crashed into a Cafe causing injuries or worse because he mistook accelerator for clutch. Any more incidents like this and "human only" cars will be banned from all but enclosed compounds (in a 5G world).

    Also weapons will carry 5G-RFIDs too, detectable by mobile police units, and their presence would cause nearby doors to lock (overrides available for those trapped). If detected (in schools, parliament, etc) the principle could be "(Mild) Taser first, ask questions later".

    Overall the 5G move could be towards a society in which all activities: construction, manufacturing, transport are "human assist" when not automatic - the possibility of accidents or incidents will have to be designed out of everything.

    Those wanting excitement will have to leave the 5G controlled zones and ideally sign up for the Space Core.

    1. ... or even 'Corps'.

      I personally have faith in ubiquitous Magnetoencephalography (Wikipedia q.v.).

      SQUIDs everywhere, reading off intentions.

      Queen Elizabeth I famously told her subjects, “I have no desire to make windows into men's souls.”

      But then, she didn't have QM and AI.

    2. Might be tricky out in the wild though:

      "Since the magnetic signals emitted by the brain are on the order of a few femtoteslas, shielding from external magnetic signals, including the Earth's magnetic field, is necessary."

    3. Bias removal and high-pass filtering ...


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