A US intelligence agency has been quietly working on a highly secretive artificial intelligence (AI) spy satellite system – like an all-seeing artificial brain in the sky – with a name that could be the handiwork of a badly written Bond villain.
The Verge filed an FOIA request to the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) last year asking for more information about the mysterious project named “Sentient” and managed to get their hands on a bucket load of documents about the once-secretive program.
Although sparse with facts, the documents reveal how the NRO has been developing an AI system that could be capable of bringing together vast swathes of information with satellite data to learn about everything from people and populations to war zones and enemy airfields. Hypothetically, the AI could combine satellite imagery with all kinds of data points, whether it's news sources, environmental sensors, or information from social media to gain real-time insights into the world below.
"The Sentient Initiative is an experiment and developmental effort to ingest data and infer likely future information from the current understanding of an intelligence problem," explains one document from the FOIA request.
"Sentient employs analytical sensemaking, multi-intelligence fusion, and automated orchestrated collection to capture and maintain custody of dynamic targets and activities, delivering integrating intelligence," reads another.
However, beyond the jargon, the Sentient project remains classified to the public, so little is known about the ins-and-outs of what it’s doing or how it’s doing it. It all sounds a bit dystopian, but the project holds the potential to make civilian satellites more efficient and productive. The NRO also told The Verge that civilians should not be too concerned with domestic surveillance as they strictly follow Executive Order 12333, which outlines what intelligence the authorities can legally gather on people in the US.
The NRO is a member of the United States Intelligence Community and an arm of the States Department of Defense that deals with satellites and signals intelligence. Unlike other intelligence agencies, such as the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) or National Security Agency (NSA), the NRO remains relatively unknown and does a good job of keeping out of the media limelight. They are perhaps most recognized in the public imagination from their USA-247 satellite badge that features a giant octopus with its tentacles wrapped around the world, accompanied by the motto "Nothing Is Beyond Our Reach."
Whatever goes on at the NRO and their Sentient project, they certainly don’t shy away from old cliches of spies and intelligence agencies.