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Defense Intelligence Agency uses artificial intelligence to confront opioid crisis

By Christopher Van Dam Defense Intelligence Agency

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The Defense Intelligence Agency is using data to tackle one of America’s health challenges – the opioid epidemic. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, more than 130 people a day in the United States die of opioid overdose. The Defense Intelligence Agency is taking an active role to combat this issue. 

During the DIA DoDIIS Worldwide Conference, Aug. 19, at the Tampa Convention Center in Florida, Brian Drake, DIA’s Science and Technology director of artificial intelligence, detailed how the Agency is using AI to combat the opioid crisis using SABLE SPEAR.

Specifically designed to collect information on foreign sources and persons associated with the synthetic opioid market, SABLE SPEAR is a mass data analytics tool that uses machine learning to ingest large datasets of publicly available information to locate indicators of illegal or suspicious activity.

According to Drake, cocaine and other plant-based drugs can only be produced in specific places on Earth. However, synthetic opioid drugs, like fentanyl, can be produced anywhere in the world, making it harder to target production facilities, people associated with production, and transit methods. 

Drake explained, while drug traffickers try to hide from law enforcement, they want to be found by current and future customers. 

Where humans are cognitively limited in detecting subtle connections, SABLE SPEAR can process millions of webpages, images, and other open source material and make connections and correlations previously unnoticeable considerably faster than a human.

Since SABLE SPEAR’s inception, there has been a 900 percent increase in the identification of illicit activities being committed. 

When asked if SABLE SPEAR could be applied across domains or to other problems, Drake stated that approaching problems with a ready-made solution is not the right way to think about challenges. 

“We have to consider whether or not the problem can be best solved with this program or one similar,” said Drake. “Lead with your mission question first, then ask, what’s the problem set. If all you have is a hammer then every problem looks like a nail.”

When discussing where he sees the future of AI, Drake said he sees various ways it can be applied, but only after understanding the specifics of a problem and having knowledge of the data analyzed. 

Drake stated, “AI is a discipline, that’s what it comes down to.”