Revealed: The 1962 CIA Paper That Predicts the Big Deal With Big Data

A computer operator in 1962 Photograph by Archive Photos/Getty Images

Last week the Central Intelligence Agency published for the first time “Some Far-Out Thoughts on Computers”, a 1962 internal document that shows how eager the agency was to exploit the power of data for Cold War spying purposes. The author, CIA analyst and self-described “computer hobbyist” Orrin Clotworthy, described with eerie clarity the promise of data analytics and computer modeling to predict the future—what the intelligence community today might call “beating the news.” Herein, the highlights:

Predicting mass human behavior “with confidence”

Where we lag is not in [computer] processing technology, but in the behavioral science ‘laboratories,’ where only the faintest of beginnings have been made in the application of physical science techniques to the study of societies. We are doubtless years away from the knowledge of causes and effects that will permit us to predict mass human behavior with real confidence. Yet there is rising optimism among scholars that we will some day be able to foretell the behavior of large groups of people with reasonable limits, given accurate and timely measures of certain telltale factors.

On monitoring the sale of plum brandy to predict regime change in the Balkans

Let’s imagine, for example, that we discover an extremely high correlation between Tito’s popularity among the Yugoslavs and the consumption of slivovitz in that country: when the per capita absorption goes up, his stock goes down. As long as we are aware of this and he is not, we will find it profitable to collect precise data on boozing among the Yugoslavs. To keep our interest undetected, we resort to clandestine collection techniques, because once he learns of it and knows the reason why, he can adopt countermeasures, for instance doctored consumption figures. The variations in this game are endless.

Call of Duty—Gaming the enemy

The Air Force has been experimenting for years with a mock-up of the strategic air battle, using a computer to simulate the clash between a surprise intercontinental air and space assault force and the defensive and counter-strike resources of this country. … While these games are great value as instructional aids, they are far more than that. With the computer alternate strategies are subjected to realistic tests, and aerospace doctrine emerges. And the time is not too remote when fresh intelligence on a potential enemy’s capabilities and order of battle, fed into a computer as it is received, will turn out constantly changing designs for an optimum counter-strategy.

Artificial intelligence by the year 2000

Theoretically if a man’s importance warrants it, they should be able to reduce to mathematical terms and store in an electronic memory most of his salient experience and observed reactions to varying situations. Subjecting this stand-in brain to a hypothetical set of circumstances, they could then read out his probable reaction to the event hypothesized. Here the storage problem alone would be tremendous. Even greater would be the task of teaching the computer to ignore certain stimuli while responding to others. As you read this article you are able to disregard the noise of the air conditioner nearby. It will be some time before a machine can be taught to distinguish between the relevant and the irrelevant in even this elementary fashion. Still, by say the year 2000, I wouldn’t bet against it.