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Beyond Surveillance: Darpa Wants a Thinking Camera

January 7, 2011 | Chris Payatagool
darpa_surveillance.jpgBy Spencer Ackerman via Wired

It's tough being an imagery analyst for the U.S. military: you're drowning in pictures and drone video, with more pouring in endlessly from the tons of sensors and cameras used on planes, ships and satellites. Sifting through it to find roadside bombs or missile components is a time-consuming challenge. That's why the Pentagon's blue sky research arm figures that cameras ought to be able to filter out useless information themselves -- so you don't have to.

Darpa announced yesterday that it's moving forward in earnest with a program to endow cameras with "visual intelligence." That's the ability to process information from visual cues, contextualize its significance, and learn what other visual data is necessary to answer some pre-existing question. Visual-intelligence algorithms are already out there. They can read license plates in traffic or recognized faces (in limited, brighly-lit circumstances). But the programs are still relatively dumb; they simply help collate data that analysts have to go through. Darpa's program, called Mind's Eye, seeks to get humans out of the picture. If it works, it could change the world of surveillance overnight.

Following on a March conference for potential contractors, Darpa has given 12 research teams, mostly based at universities, contracts to build these thinking cameras. The initial idea is to mount them on drones for ground surveillance, so robots can take dangerous scouting responsibilities away from troops. In theory, humans wouldn't be required to instruct the scouts while they wheel around about what pictures to take.

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