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

Financial Mail - - ENTREPRENEUR - Sylvia Mcke­own

“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.

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