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Palmer Luckey chases government contracts with 'virtual wall'

His company's technology has already led to dozens of arrests. When you hear talk of a border wall, you typically picture an actual, physical construction. But that's not the case for Palmer Luckey. The Oculus co-founder and his startup Anduril Industries have been working on a virtual wall -- one complete with cameras, sensors and VR -- with the aim of scoring a US defense contract and providing border security at a fraction of the cost of a physical wall. Luckey discussed plans for this technology last year, but now it's being tested, both officially and unofficially, and it's catching the eye of US officials. Wired reports that Anduril has constructed a prototype of its Lattice system on a ranch in Texas and is also conducting a government-funded test of its technology outside of San Diego. " They said they could provide broader border security for a lower cost," Melissa Ho, managing director of Silicon Valley's Department of Homeland Security office, told Wired. "We were intrigued by that." Over the course of 10 weeks, the Lattice technology stationed on the Texas ranch helped lead to the arrest of 55 people. During the first 12 days of the ongoing test outside of San Diego, Lattice was used to capture 10 people. Anduril's engineers used open source data to train a machine learning system how to differentiate objects like animals, automobiles, tumbleweeds and humans. Now, when Lattice's sensors spot anything moving nearby, it can say what that object most likely is and by what percentage it's sure. Anduril's technology is already controversial, but its backers are no stranger to that. Along with Luckey -- who left Facebook after he became embroiled in controversy following reports that he donated money to and allegedly wrote Reddit posts for a racist, alt-right group -- Anduril's co-founders include former executives of Peter Thiel's secretive data-mining company Palantir. The company's lead investor is Thiel's VC firm Founders Fund. Lattice comes as DHS and the Trump administration continue to pursue harsh and controversial immigration policies and at a time when other companies' employees have pushed back against decisions to sign government contracts. Google recently announced it wouldn't renew its Pentagon contract after thousands of its staff signed a petition against the deal and over a dozen resigned because of it. When asked if the company would ever build systems that killed people, Anduril CEO Brian Schimpf told Wired, "We're really focused on the intelligence and surveillance piece right now," but added, "I wouldn't say that's a line we're drawing."

Palmer Luckey’s border control tech has already caught dozens of people

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 Luckeys 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 ranchers private land. Over a 10-week span, Andurils security towers apparently helped border agents catch 55 people and seize 982 pounds of marijuana, although 39 of those arrests werent connected to drugs. The dream of an electronically souped-up border isnt 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. Whats 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 its cheaper than the advanced drone systems that some other border tech companies are selling. Rep. Will Hurd (R-TX), whose district includes the nations 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. Andurils limited test doesnt 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 doesnt answer any of the moral questions around how a system like Lattice should be used — especially at a time when President Trumps 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 dollars to 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, Andurils name is a Tolkien reference.) Andurils lead investor is the Founders Fund, the firm headed by Palantir co-founder Peter Thiel. Anduril didnt reply to a request for comment. But based on the Wired report, it looks like the ranchs 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 dont know how effective — or potentially harmful — its products ultimately are.