CIA up to speed on Big Data in the 1960s

Posted by Nermin Hadjarbegovic

Last week the CIA published a 1962 internal document that seems to show it was contemplating some very advanced data techniques half a century ago.

Titled “some Far-Out Thoughts on Computers” the document was authored by one Orrin Clotworthy, an intelligence analyst and self described “computer hobbyist”. Apparently that’s what geeks called themselves back in the early sixties.

In his report Clothworthy argued that data analytics and computer modelling could be used to predict the future, which must have sounded like a sci-fi concept back in his day. He pointed out that predicting human behaviour with real confidence was still years away, and he was right. Still though, he offered some rather interesting and amusing examples.

“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 aides, they are far more than that,” he wrote. “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.”

Needless to say, such simulations played a crucial role in developing not only tactical doctrine, but the US strategic posture during much of the Cold War. Luckily, political and military leaders quickly realized that there is simply no way that either side would survive an all out nuclear exchange, and that ambitious air defence systems dreamt up in the fifties have no hope in hell of protecting the US from red retaliation.

Clothworthy also argued that computers could be “taught” to ignore certain stimuli while responding to others, displaying some rudimentary artificial intelligence.

“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,” he wrote. Sorry Orrin, we’re still not there.

On the more theoretical and amusing side of the spectrum, Clothworthy used the popularity enjoyed by Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito to demonstrate the possible effect of data analysis on trend prediction.

“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,” he wrote.

It might work on paper, but not in real life. Most slivovitz is produced in tiny domestic stills, so one would be hard pressed to come up with accurate consumption and production rates even today, let alone in the early sixties. The same goes for wine produced in what used to be southern Yugoslavia. My liver knows this first hand.

Besides, Tito’s popularity did not have much to do with brandy, but it had a lot to do with social and economic programmes put in place after World War II. In fact, Tito is the only European communist leader that is still loved and even worshipped by his former subjects, and he was into whisky and cigars, not slivovitz.

Word has it that Prince Phillip visited Tito’s summer home in the sixties and brought along two cases of the finest whisky Britain had to offer. Needless to say, Tito loved the gift. However, when he offered Prince Phillip a drink, he brought out a bottle of Chivas Regal. Prince Phillip then asked for something a bit nicer, something from his two leather cases packed with the really good stuff.

Tito’s answer was witty and rather undiplomatic: “No sir, I am saving that for special guests.”