Our National Security Is Threatened By Computers That Can't Spell

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A report published two weeks ago by the House Homeland Security Committee revealed that Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev could have been detained before the attack — if he had spelled his name differently.

Tsarnaev had been on a terrorist watch list, but no action was taken when he returned to the United States from a trip to Dagestan, because the list spelled his name as "Tsarnayev."


Writing at DefenseOne, David Murgatroyd (not "Murgatroid"), an expert on language technology systems, notes that a human would have likely caught the error, but "the growing number of requests like this that security professionals face means that we have to rely more and more on software [and] teaching software to understand the nuances of names and speech is an enormous national security challenge."

Small wonder, then, that text analytics technology has grown into a $1 billion market. But, improved systems will still make mistakes — which is why, Murgatroyd says, even as half a century of technological progress has ushered in an era of automating human tasks, the theme of the next half-century must be assisting humans in their tasks. It's sort of like the Hollywood buddy-cop formula, when the streetwise cop is paired with the by-the-book cop, and the two develop a bond of trust:

This sort of collaboration is available now. If an agent at JFK airport the day Tamerlan Tsaernaev came through had had a newer system that handled more spelling variation, she would have seen the "Tsaernayev" match but also some innocent results. She would have eliminated these mismatches by diving deeper into the person's itinerary or history on the watch list. Every time she interacts with the data—honing in on people of interest and discarding the misfires—the computer understands this and presents the next batch of results with greater awareness of what is being sought. All of this is conducted in a very natural way, much like two people working together, side-by-side.

As the collaboration between the person and the computer becomes richer, each will want the ability to communicate their confidence about certain judgments to the other.