In September, Azerbaijan and Armenia renewed fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed territory in the Caucasus mountains. By then, an information warfare campaign over the region had been underway for several months.
The campaign was identified using artificial intelligence technology being developed for US Special Operations Command (SOCOM), which oversees US special forces operations.
The AI system, from Primer, a company focused on the intelligence industry, identified key themes in the information campaign by analyzing thousands of public news sources. In practice, Primer’s system can analyze classified information too. The analysis, compiled for WIRED, shows how Russian news outlets began pushing a narrative in July designed to bolster its ally Armenia and undermine its enemy Azerbaijan.
Raymond Thomas, a retired general who previously led SOCOM and now sits on Primer’s board, says the Department of Defense faces a torrent of information as well misinformation. “To keep pace, you’re not going to do it with a bunch of people reading,” he says. “This has to be machine-enabled.”
Primer said earlier this month it had won a “multimillion dollar” contract to develop a version of its technology for SOCOM as well as the US Air Force. The technology uses recent advances in natural language processing to identify people, places, and events in documents, and to string this information together to reveal trends.
The defense and intelligence industries need to analyze an avalanche of unclassified information such as social media along with classified reports, creating opportunities for companies like Primer, Splunk, Redhorse, and Strategic Analysis. This increasingly involves drawing insights from different forms of data such as voice recordings and images as well as text.
Primer’s investors include In-Q-Tel, the CIA-backed venture capital firm that also funded Palantir, which went public last month. Palantir started out offering tools for collecting and visualizing different types of information, such as cell phone records and internet traffic. It also now offers technology that uses AI to parse and organize text.
Recent leaps in machine understanding of language, enabled by feeding large machine-learning models huge amounts of text training data, could have a big impact on intelligence as well as business. Primer is focused on the intelligence industry, but it previously won a contract to supply its technology to Walmart, for identifying buying trends and supply chain issues.
Primer’s analysis of the Russian information campaign offers a simple example of how AI can both help organize information and identify misinformation. The effort to portray Azerbaijan and Turkey as aggressors in Nagorno-Karabakh may have provided an early warning sign of escalating tensions, or an indicator of Russia trying to stir up trouble. The report boiled down 985 incidents from over 3,000 documents to 13 key events. A human analyst would have needed several hours to perform the analysis, but the Primer system did it in roughly 10 minutes. The technology works across several languages, including Russian and Chinese as well as English.
By mid-August, according to the report, the Russian outlets were publishing an increasing number of stories claiming that Turkey, an ally of Azerbaijan, was pouring troops into Armenia; other news sources made no mention of the build-up, suggesting it may have been part of a concerted information campaign. “The ability to sort through all that information and misinformation, to enable decisionmaking, that’s exceptionally critical,” says Thomas, the retired general and Primer board member.