June 20, 2013 6:40 pm

Digital intelligence and dumb terrorists

The everyday stupidity and actions of humans are beyond the understanding of most computers

I know a lot of you are worried about US government surveillance of the internet. But I’m worried about something else. I’m worried about whether the US government has a computer smart enough to understand a person as stupid as Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

Concerns about American internet spying have been stirred recently by the disclosure of existence of the Prism programme, which gives US intelligence agencies access to the online communications of foreigners as part of the war on terrorism.

The reports on Prism have raised fears of systematic scrutiny of email traffic – of Big Brother sifting through the contents of the private messages sent by people all around the world – and Lord knows we don’t want anything like that.

But I would also ask whether even the most high-tech data-digging operation would be of much help when the terrorist threat comes in the form of Mr Tsarnaev – the young man in the backward white baseball cap who is accused of teaming up with his older brother, now deceased, to plant two bombs at the Boston marathon on April 15, killing three people and injuring more than 200.

There was no great need to spy on Mr Tsarnaev because he – like so many folks these days – spent much of his time talking about himself on social media. In the months leading up to April 15, he sent out hundreds of tweets, leaving behind a portrait of the terrorist suspect as a young man for those of us in the press who pursue such information without the benefit of a court order.

Mr Tsarnaev – who was born in Kyrgyzstan to Chechen parents and lived in Dagestan before he came to Cambridge, Massachusetts, as a child – clearly had his grievances. Roughly a year before the attack, he tweeted: “how i miss my homeland” and “a decade in america already, i want out”. He also complained of “fools who say islam is terrorism” and took the occasional political position. “Free Palestine”, he tweeted.

But at other times, the former high school wrestling star carried on like a prospective cast member of an MTV reality show. He said Miss USA was sexy and that Frosted Flakes were great. He quoted the lyrics of classic rocker Peter Frampton – “ooh baby i love your way, everyday” – and held that “not being able to find the remote to the tv is probably one of the most reoccurring struggles of life”.

Mr Tsarnaev even boasted about his prowess in beer pong, a drinking game mainly played by young Americans lacking a proper fear of hangovers (or respect for Muslim prohibitions on the use of alcohol, for that matter).

Pity the poor computer that would have to crunch this contradictory data and figure out where Mr Tsarnaev was heading. Even if we assume, for the sake of argument, that all his Americana was a ruse meant to hide his intentions (and quoting Mr Frampton to fit into the 21st century US does sound like an idea cooked up by someone who had spent the past several decades in an Afghan cave), Mr Tsarnaev strikes me as all-too human for any artificial intelligence to comprehend.

It’s just hard to imagine a supercomputer capturing the banality of his evil, the casual way in which the self-described “best beer pong player in Cambridge” tagged along with his brother at the race route, according to surveillance photos that have been released by the authorities.

Remember, we’re talking about a 19-year-old man who allegedly committed one of the most heinous crimes in the history of his city – and then went the following day to a repair shop to pick up a car he had dropped off two weeks before for a repair to its rear bumper. Any well-trained terrorist would have had his wheels ready to go before he attacked – the key word in this regard being “getaway” – but this dullard had it the other way round.

The result was like a scene out of Dude, Where’s My Car? Chewing on his fingernails and looking “shaky”, Mr Tsarnaev asked for his vehicle, only to be told by the mechanic, Gilberto Junior, that it still wasn’t ready. “I don’t care, I don’t care, I don’t care. I need the car right now,” responded Mr Tsarnaev, according to Mr Junior’s widely quoted account. The young man then drove the car away – even though it didn’t have a rear bumper.

This is the sort of thing that inspired the poet William Carlos Williams to observe: “We know nothing, pure and simple, beyond our own complexities.”

You could try to explain it to a computer, but I don’t think you would get very far.

gary.silverman@ft.com

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