During a news cycle where headline after headline covers the political, social, and emotional turmoil at the United States-Mexico border, departed Oculus co-founder Palmer Luckey is proposing a blanket solution involving virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and a few very tall towers. This “virtual border wall” was revealed last year, but Wired has now reported more details about Luckey’s venture Anduril Industries. The company is touting a surveillance system called Lattice that would survey the motion of potential border-crossers from up to two miles away.
Lattice, as detailed in Wired, is primarily based off of well-established security technologies — a combination of cameras, LIDAR, and infrared sensors — that capture data around the border. This is then analyzed by artificial intelligence that is trained to detect the difference between a tumbleweed, car, coyote, or human based on gait and other factors. Luckey claims this kind of deep learning, which has been perfected by computer vision experts over the years, can let Anduril bypass the expensive zoom lenses and thermal detectors offered up by other border security startups.
In one Lattice demo, author Stephen Levy put on a Samsung Gear VR headset that showed the wearer a direct video feed of the border. If anything — a human, vehicle, or animal — tried to pass, the system gave users a bright green alert identifying it along with a probability certainty. The system is currently being tested on a Texas rancher’s private land. Over a 10-week span, Anduril’s security towers apparently helped border agents catch 55 people and seize 982 pounds of marijuana, although 39 of those arrests weren’t connected to drugs.
The dream of an electronically souped-up border isn’t particularly original or even that new. Back in 2006, the DHS launched a competition to create a comprehensive border wall. Its project, dubbed SBInet (which stands for Secure Border Initiative), would be a 53-mile-long system featuring the newest infrastructure, technology, and rapid response capabilities available. The project, which was eventually run by Boeing, was crushed by mismanagement at the federal level for things like vague deadlines, spiraling costs, and not being stringent with checking and preventing bugs. One month in, after spending roughly $1 billion on the project, the DHS put brakes on SBInet.
What’s changed since the SBInet meltdown, as Wired points out, is time. The sensors, cameras, and other surveillance tech that Boeing poured its money into can be bought for less now, and it’s cheaper than the advanced drone systems that some other border tech companies are selling. Rep. Will Hurd (R-TX), whose district includes the nation’s longest stretch of US-Mexico border, says Lattice could be built for close to $500,000 per mile, instead of a $20 million per mile concrete wall.
Anduril’s limited test doesn’t tell us whether Lattice will succeed where SBInet failed, though, or even how many false positives and negatives the identification system had, beyond those 55 arrests. It also doesn’t answer any of the moral questions around how a system like Lattice should be used — especially at a time when President Trump’s harsh anti-immigration policies have had dangerous or deadly effects on people seeking to enter the country. And since Trump built much of his campaign on the promise of a literal border wall, which will cost an estimated cost of $18 billion, he might not give that up for a “virtual” equivalent.
Luckey is a politically controversial figure. He left Oculus after donating thousands of dollarsto an organization devoted to attacking the Clinton campaign with “shitposting” memes. Anduril is also staffed by former executives from the secretive data-crunching company Palantir, which has done for government industries in the past and raised red flags about intrusive surveillance. (Like Palantir, Anduril’s name is a Tolkien reference.) Anduril’s lead investor is the Founders Fund, the firm headed by Palantir co-founder Peter Thiel.
Anduril didn’t reply to a request for comment. But based on the Wired report, it looks like the ranch’s Lattice system is still running, though there are no remarks about how (or if) it will continue. And judging by the fact that the article was written at all, Anduril looks ready to go public with its ambitions, even if we still don’t know how effective — or potentially harmful — its products ultimately are.