Remember Red Plenty, Francis Spufford’s historical SF novel about the Soviet Union’s efforts to create a real-time planned economy using computers and the ideas of Oskar Lange and Leonid Kantorovich? Sure you do if you’re on this blog. Well, it turns out that it had a dark and twisted 1980s sequel.
We already knew about Operation RYAN, the Yuri Andropov-inspired maximum effort search for intelligence offering strategic warning of a putative Western preventive war against the Soviet Union, and that it intersected dangerously with the war scare of 1983. We also knew that part of it was something to do with an effort to assess the intelligence take using some sort of computer system, but not in any detail. A lot more documents have just been declassified, and it turns out that the computer element was not just a detail, but absolutely central to RYAN.
At the end of the 1970s the USSR was at the zenith of its power, but the KGB leadership especially were anxious about the state of the economy and about the so-called scientific-technological revolution, the equivalent of the Revolution in Military Affairs concept in the US. As a result, they feared that once the US regained a substantial advantage it would attack. The answer was to develop an automated system to predict when this might happen and what the key indicators were.
Model the whole problem as a system of interconnected linear programming problems. They said. Load up the data. They said. Comrades, let’s optimise. They said.
In all, the RYAN model used some 40,000 data points, most of which were collected by greatly increased KGB and Joint GRU field activity. It generated a numerical score between 0 and 100. Higher was better – above 70 peace was probable, whereas below 60 it was time to worry. The problem was the weighting applied to each of those parameters. Clearly, they had to train the model against some existing data set, and the one they chose was Nazi Germany in the run-up to Operation BARBAROSSA.
Who needs theory? They said. We’ve got the data. They said. A simple matter of programming. They said.
As Sean Gallagher at Ars wisely points out, this is a case of the problem described here, that gave us those amazing computer dream pictures. The neural network that classifies cat photos must by definition contain enough information to make a random collection of pixels catlike, although uncannily not quite right. Similarly, RYAN picked up a lot of unrelated data and invariably made it vaguely Hitler-y.
The score went through 60 as early as 1981. The Soviets responded by going on higher alert and sending more agents to posts in the West to get more data. Meanwhile, in the West, John Lehman’s maritime strategy was being put into effect, causing the US Navy and its allies to operate progressively closer to the Soviet periphery, which only made things worse. In the autumn of 1983, the score may have fallen below 40, around the time Stanislas Petrov did his thing.
At this point, Communist Party local cadres were being called in to be briefed on the coming war and their duty to prepare the population. Tactical nuclear weapons were released to local control and moved about by helicopter. The Soviet military was on a higher state of alert than even during the Cuban missile crisis. Fortunately, at this crucial juncture, Yuri Andropov resolved the situation by dying and therefore denying the Big Algo that crucial parameter: patronage.
So, when I was reading all that SF as a kid, I had actually narrowly escaped being vaporised with nuclear space rockets by an evil computer that had convinced itself I was Hitler! I had no idea!
Less flippantly, one of the major themes in Red Plenty is the tension between Kantorovich’s vision of a decentralised, instantly responsive socialist economy, and the Party’s discretionary power – between communism and the Communists, if you like. The RYAN story flips this on its head. This time, it wasn’t the bureaucrats’ insistence on clinging to power that was the problem. It was the solution. The computer said “War”; only fundamentally political, human discretion could say “Peace”. As Joseph Weizenbaum put it, a computer can decide but it cannot choose.
Another thing from Red Plenty that comes up here is that the same unvarying forces of Soviet politics worked the same way, computers or no computers. In the end, everything was personal, and settled through the backstairs gift-economy of favours and influence. Only the loss of its patron could stop the machine.
Also, another theme in the book is the future role the actors in it will play in the perestroika years. We have the cadre down in Novocherkassk who refuses to get used to violence. We have the cadre and programmer who may be turning into an embarrassing trendy dad, but has been enduringly influenced by the Czech experience of 1968. We have the economist who has learned the lesson that the system will have to change dramatically, even if this gets put off 20 years. When they reach the peak of their careers, something is going to change.
And of course they were arriving there just in time to “sudo killall -9 ryand” before ryand killed us all.