Start-ups

Oculus co-founder Palmer Luckey is making a 'virtual' border wall with A.I., and it's already working

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Oculus co-founder Palmer Luckey wants to build a 'virtual' border wall

Virtual reality technology made Palmer Luckey a multi-millionaire. Now, the Oculus co-founder's new company is using artificial intelligence technology to create a high-tech surveillance system that could be used to build a "virtual wall" on the southern US border.

In fact, Anduril Industries, the defense technology start-up Luckey founded in 2017, has already tested its border control tech in Texas and San Diego. In those tests, Anduril's surveillance technology helped US border agents catch dozens of people who were trying to cross the border into the US without authorization, US Customs and Border Protection told Wired in June 2018.

When Luckey was only 21 years old, he sold Oculus, the virtual reality headset company, to Facebook for over $2 billion just a few years after creating the first prototype as a teenager working out of his parents' garage.

Here's how Luckey, now 26, describes his latest company's AI-powered system, which is called Lattice, in an October 2018 interview with CNBC's Andrew Ross Sorkin: "What Lattice is is an AI-powered sensor fusion platform that can take data from thousands of sensors and integrate it into a single cohesive, real-time 3-D model that has everything in it tagged using machine learning — so, all the people, all the vehicles, all the drones and the aircraft over very large areas."

Lattice uses a network of connected cameras and infrared sensors that can be set up along wide swaths of land (attached to towers, or even to small flying drones), potentially covering hundreds of miles of the US border. The system's AI-powered technology can scan for movement miles away while analyzing the source to see if it has spotted a person, a vehicle, an animal, etc.

Anduril's technology has "a lot of applications," Luckey tells CNBC. "We're securing military bases, we have sites that are on the U.S. border, we're doing some programs we can't talk about," Luckey says. "There's a lot of applications for this in protecting oil pipelines, protecting airports, protecting power plants — basically, anywhere where you want to know everything that's going on, so that you can have people focusing on responding to problems instead of looking for the problems."

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In the case of border security, Lattice could make it easier for US border agents to monitor for unauthorized border crossings. Rather than agents scanning surveillance systems themselves, poring over footage from hundreds of miles of land looking for people and vehicles trying to cross the border without authorization, border agents would instead receive alerts from Lattice any time the system's AI-powered technology identifies a potential unauthorized crossing in progress.

Border control is an obvious potential application for Anduril's Lattice technology, Luckey tells CNBC. The Lattice system lets border agents "know what they're responding to [and] they can choose what the most important thing is to respond to, and they're not going into every single situation treating it like it's an elevated threat level because they have no idea what's happening," Luckey says.

After just a 10-week period of testing Lattice on a Texas ranch on the southern US border in 2018, Anduril's technology helped border agents catch 55 people trying to cross into the US without authorization, US Customs and Border Protection told Wired last year.

Those border agents also seized 982 pounds of marijuana in those arrests (though, Wired notes that 39 of the 55 individuals apprehended were not carrying drugs). While the company's results in Texas were part of an informal test on a privately-owned ranch, the San Diego office of US Customs and Border Protection also tested the Lattice technology in 2018, which resulted in an additional 10 people apprehended at the US border in the program's first 12 days, according to Wired.

US Customs and Border Protection did not respond to CNBC's request for updated information on tests of Lattice technology on the US border.

The US military has also tested Anduril's Lattice system. In November, an official Twitter account for the US Marine Corps Base & Air Station Camp Pendleton near San Diego tweeted a video showing how the Marines use the Lattice system's sensors, placed offshore of the oceanside military base, to detect unknown objects. Lattice drones can then relay live images back to the base in order to detect any potential threats.

"This new system has the potential to ensure the safety of Camp Pendleton by monitoring its surrounding waters," Lance Cpl. Drake Nickels says in the video.

Luckey's company is testing its Lattice system on the US border at a time when few topics are more controversial in Washington, D.C. than immigration policy and border security.

Since December 22, the US government has remained stuck in what is now the longest-ever government shutdown due to a stalemate between Democratic leaders and the White House, where President Trump is insisting on $5.6 billion in federal funding to build a wall along the southern US border. Democrats have, thus far, refused to include the president's requested border wall funding in any potential deal to reopen the government.

Luckey, who spoke to CNBC before the government shutdown began, believes that the idea of border security is essentially bipartisan. "No matter what your immigration policy views are, most people in the government can agree, on both sides, that it's a good idea to have good border security," Luckey tells CNBC. "No good policy can rely on having no idea what's going on [at the border]."

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