Palmer Luckey Revolutionized VR. Now He’s Selling A.I. to the Marines.
The technology will allow for 24/7 automated surveillance near the U.S.-Mexico border in Yuma, Arizona, among other locations
Palmer Luckey, the virtual reality pioneer who founded Oculus, is now responsible for a real-world defense contractor.
Luckey’s defense firm Anduril is supplying the United States Marine Corps with $13.5 million in surveillance technology to secure four of its bases around the world, according to documents obtained by a Freedom of Information Act request and released today by Mijente, a Latinx activist organization lobbying tech firms to stop supplying technical support for border detentions and deportations. Other documents released by Mijente suggest that Luckey’s firm is also supplying drones and surveillance towers to third-party contractors, which are then selling the equipment to Customs and Border Protection.
Anduril did not immediately respond to a request for comment from OneZero.
The company’s technology will “autonomously detect and classify objects as humans on foot, wheeled and tracked vehicles on land, surface swimmers, and surface vessels and boats, and alert operators of such objects,” according to one of the documents obtained by Mijente and shared with journalists, which details the agreement between Anduril and the Marines. The contract describes the Anduril technology as a tool to autonomously detect potential intrusions to Marine locations on “surrounding air, land, and sea, through all-weather conditions.” What this means is that the Marines could use Anduril’s technology for 24/7 automated surveillance around its bases — including one near the U.S.-Mexico border in Yuma, Arizona, which has experienced a surge in border crossings so severe that in April the town’s mayor signed a proclamation of emergency. (The other bases mentioned in the documents are in Hawaii and Japan.)
Until now, there has been little concrete evidence that Anduril was making money from government contracts. The startup — which was founded in 2017 — had reportedly received funding under the Pentagon’s Project Maven, according to The Intercept, but the report didn’t detail anything but the arrangement itself.
Anduril’s approach to the defense industry takes popular technologies developed elsewhere in Silicon Valley and adapts them for military use
At a time when some Silicon Valley companies have pulled back from working with the Pentagon, Anduril is one of a number of firms that are courting a relationship with the U.S. military and its $730 billion budget. The primary example is Palantir, the secretive data analytics company co-founded by Peter Thiel, which has reportedly built mass surveillance tools for police to track suspects from even the slightest bit of information.
Luckey started work on Anduril the day after he left Facebook in March 2017, after The Daily Beast broke the news that he had funded alt-right group Nimble America. (Both Facebook and Luckey have declined to say Luckey was forced out due to political views, but in a later interview Luckey heavily implies that was the case.)
Luckey met Trae Stephens, a former Palantir engineer turned Founders Fund employee, at an event put on by the venture capital firm in 2014 and the two kept in touch, according to a Wired profile of the company. Stephens and Luckey convinced the Founders Fund to invest in their company and also pitched Palantir on the idea. After that meeting, Palantir’s head of engineering Brian Schimpf joined Anduril and is now CEO.
Stephens, who worked on government contracting for Founders Fund, is especially bullish on bringing the speed and skills of Silicon Valley contractors to the defense industry.
“If you look back over the last 30 years since the end of the Cold War, the only two venture-backed companies that do the majority of their business with the government that have become worth more than a billion dollars are Palantir and SpaceX,” he said on the Eye on AI podcast last month. “And so, I think part of this problem is how do we get the Defense Department.”
Founders Fund — where Stephens still works — is the lead investor for Anduril, as it was for Palantir. Even the firm’s name, Anduril, mimics Palantir’s Lord of the Rings reference. Anduril is the reforged sword of Aragon, a main character of the series, while Palantir references a crystal ball used by wizards to spy on events from afar.
Anduril’s approach to the defense industry takes popular technologies developed elsewhere in Silicon Valley and adapts them for military use. The company employs artificial intelligence algorithms running on Nvidia hardware to detect people, vehicles, and animals, according to the company website. Nvidia hardware is found in gadgets like the Nintendo Switch, nearly every self-driving car prototype, and in the heart of major tech company data centers.
Anduril’s A.I. research, which is centered on the ability to automatically identify people and things through cameras, is fundamentally similar to consumer-facing projects like auto-tagging on Facebook — with the obvious distinction that Anduril is selling its wares to the military. A listing on an A.I. industry conference job board says that the company is interested in pose estimation, a common element of A.I. research in which an algorithm tries to identify the orientation of a person’s limbs. This software is what made the Microsoft Kinect able to look at people in their living rooms and track their movement for virtual tennis. It could now be used to identify people crossing the U.S. and Mexico border.
Silicon Valley was essentially built with defense industry dollars, as the historian Margaret O’Mara describes in her new book The Code, but in recent years more consumer-focused companies like Amazon and Google have faced employee protests over government contracts that would use their technology to track immigrants or assist in drone targeting. In the Eye on AI podcast interview, Stephens implied there was a void to fill.
“It didn’t seem like the tech community was responding to the call for help that was coming from the Pentagon,” he said. “If someone was going to do this, it should just be us.”