Towards the virtual frontier
A virtual wall that uses light detection and ranging, mixed with facial recognition, may be the first step to a borderless Brexit solution
“Nothing will really change,” said my uncle when I asked him why he would, in his right mind, vote in favour of Brexit.
In a way he was right. As it stands, not a lot will change. The deal that Prime Minister Theresa May has negotiated means Britain will still have to follow all the rules set by the EU, but — here’s where things will change — with no say in how they are made. It’s a mess. MPS went so far as to back the motion declaring ministers in contempt of parliament just before the Commons was set to vote on
May’s hard-earned deal.
The big picture Britons were sold was a nice — albeit xenophobic and misguided — dream, but in reality it is the smallest details that are causing the largest headache for May.
The entire linchpin of the Brexit process comes down to the borders of the Republic of Ireland (which is part of the EU) and Northern Ireland (part of the UK).
Peace in Ireland was brokered in 1996 only because the UK was, at that time, a part of Europe. It allowed for concessions to be made under the guise of unity and an open-border trading policy that would allow free access to either side, which is especially important to farmers.
Now with Brexit everything is a bit messy again: how is the UK going to retain its stance on strict immigration and closed border policies alongside Europe’s proposed Brexit policies — and keep the border open as stipulated in the peace treaty?
The neighbouring north-south Irish counties even balked at any Brexit proposal of a physical wall because it would cut farmlands, and even some towns, in half. As it stands, to cross some parts of the border all you have to do is hop over a set of steps in a waist-high fence or walk across the road to get to the other side. Regardless of whether May gets sacked or a Brexit deal is voted through — unlikely at this point — the border dynamics of Ireland and Northern Ireland will remain a contentious issue that will need some innovative tech to keep the peace.
Enter Lidar, which stands for light detection and ranging.
Palmer Luckey was once a name attached to innovation. He reinvigorated the field of virtual reality (VR) and made what turned out to be empty promises of making VR for everyone with Oculus Rift, a VR system that immerses people inside virtual worlds.
Luckey then sold his company to Facebook for $2bn — $100,000 of which he donated to “Nimble America”, a pro-donald Trump and racist online propaganda mill. This got him fired from Facebook.
He is using the rest of his money to fund Anduril, a tech company that focuses on national defence.
Anduril’s biggest project is Lattice, a virtual border wall that uses Lidar, cameras, sensors and VR, all in the hope of scoring a US defence contract to provide Trump with his beloved border security at a fraction of the cost of his proposed physical wall.
“They said they could provide broader border security for a lower cost,” Melissa Ho, the MD of Silicon Valley’s department of homeland security, told Wired Magazine. “We were intrigued by that.”
Lidar uses light in a similar way bats use sound waves to navigate their surroundings. Lidar systems use lasers to send out pulses of light just outside the visual spectrum and track the time it takes for each pulse to return. It is now most commonly used in autonomous cars and provides a far more accurate depiction of the landscape than human eyes can capture.
Lattice combines Lidar with Raytheon’s People Tracker software and machine learning to create a system that is able to differentiate moving objects such as animals, cars, drones, tumbleweeds and humans, and track them in real time.
It is being put to the test by Anduril on a ranch in Texas, and with the help of the government, it is also being tested “somewhere outside San Diego”.
Over the course of 10 weeks, Lattice helped lead to the arrest of 55 people in Texas and in the first 12 days of the test outside San Diego, 10 people were “captured”.
Now, no-one in Ireland needs be captured for letting their sheep graze a little way over the border. But the system may be the first step towards a borderless solution.
If this system were to be combined with China’s facial recognition technology it would be able to track whether the citizens and their sheep were native to either side of Ireland, with no alarm bells.
As it stands, the Chinese are working towards their national facial database and scanning software being able to recognise, within the next few years, the face of any of their 1.4-billion citizens in a matter of three seconds. Compared with China’s numbers, implementing the system for the 6.6-million residents of the whole of Ireland (4.8-million in the republic, 1.8million in Northern Ireland) will practically be a walk in the park.
Even with today’s technology it should more than meet the border’s needs.
The Megvii Face++ platform, used by Chinese police departments because it is 97% accurate, can only handle searching 1,000 people at a time due to technological limitations.
It’s doubtful there will be mass exoduses from either side of the Irish border that could not accommodate those numbers at any given time.
In the end the technology to help solve the problem caused by Brexit may be less cumbersome than Brexit itself.