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Pernicious Pentagon Software

Yesterday I wrote about the danger that the Pentagon might inadvertently purchase foreign-produced “malicious” software to run some of its most critical computer systems.

Now comes news that some new Pentagon software—pernicious if not malicious—is to be domestically produced, and on orders from the Pentagon itself.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has awarded Lockheed Martin a $1.3-million contract to develop something called “the Predicting Stability through Analyzing Germane Events (PRESAGE) system.” Typical events that will be predicted “may include rebellions, insurgencies, ethnic/religious violence, civil war, and major economic crises.”

How will it work?

According to the announcement, PRESAGE will “combine a portfolio of state-of-the-art and operationally deployed social-science models and technologies” that will let “military commanders anticipate and respond to world-wide political crises and predict events of interest and stability of countries of interest with greater than 80-percent accuracy.”

Eighty-percent accuracy? That’s far better than the CIA’s rate of accuracy in predicting  “political events of interest.” And it is far better than Merrill Lynch does in predicting economic ones (Stan O’Neal please call your former office).

Perhaps we should now do as my former boss, the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, proposed: abolish the spy agency altogether. Moynihan wanted the State Department to take responsibility for gathering intelligence. But it seems we could let computers carry out our intelligence functions instead. 

There is only one small hitch. When it comes to predicting the future, computers are not likely to do a better job than the CIA, or Goldman Sachs, or even Connecting the Dots. I haven’t had a chance to examine the algorithms in PRESAGE, but as Vladimir Ilych Lenin said, when you see a heap of dung in the road, you don’t need to stick your nose in it to know what it is. And I know enough about junk political science to know it when I see it.

Does anyone disagree? The Lockheed team building PRESAGE includes specialists from the University of Pennsylvania, University of Kansas, University of Washington, and University of Georgia. Despite this stellar lineup, I can predict with more than 80-percent accuracy that the program will flop, at a cost of $1.3 million. That money would be far better spent repairing dangerous dams built by Saddam Hussein.


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