The Palantir of New Orleans

Six years ago, one of the world’s most secretive and powerful tech firms developed a contentious intelligence product in a city that has served as a neoliberal laboratory for everything from charter schools to radical housing reform since Hurricane Katrina. Because the program was never public, important questions about its basic functioning, risk for bias, and overall propriety were never answered.

--- Palantir has secretly been using New Orleans to test its predictive policing technology, Ali Winston, The Verge, Feb. 27, 2018.

In Eldamar, so long before
      Our time, that none can tell the count in years,
The elven craftsman Féanor
      Devised the seeing stones, the Palantirs.

The men of old, in seven towers,
      Installed the stones that Féanor had wrought
And used their extrasensory powers
      To see far off and to converse in thought.

But using a device whose might
      Exceeds your wisdom risks a fearful fall.
The fates of Saruman the White
      And Steward Denethor are known to all.


The enterprising Peter Thiel
      Built Paypal and became a billionaire.
A man of business nonpareil
      But arrogant as Féanor the Fair.

He scorned the college education
      That piles useless knowledge in your head,
And so established a foundation
      So youths could start up businesses instead.

He scorned the privileged elite,
      Self-righteous, over-educated, smug,
And thus endorsed the loathsome cheat
      Who honors every autocratic thug.

Since folks online are always willing
      To publish on the web all they can tell
Thiel saw that he could make a killing
      By mining it for content he can sell.

His team of workers then designed
      The mightiest program they could engineer
To sift the data to be mined.
      He named the company "The Palantir".

The palantirs of Féanor
    Could show what was long past and far away.
Thiel's Palantir sees vastly more:
      It knows right now what men will do some day.

It studies billions of relations
      'Twixt men as they develop over time.
And finds the key configurations
      That augur the committing of a crime.


To prove, past reasonable doubt,
      Who's guilty of specific criminal acts
Requires reasoning about
      An awful lot of pesky little facts.

Who was where and when and why?
      What show the footprints, blood stains, DNA?
An inconvenient alibi
      Can ruin any prosecutor's day.

A human being is still needed
      To comprehend these kinds of evidence
No AI program has succeeded
      In mastering the basic common sense.

But building an AI detector
      For criminal propensity's no sweat.
You map a person to a vector
      And classify it with a neural net.


New Orleans, fair but troubled Queen
      Has not in full recovered from the blow
Dealt by Hurricane Katrine
      In storm and flood, a dozen years ago.

Gangs that trafficked in the sale
      Of heroin and methampetamines
Fought turf wars, and they left a trail
      Of murder on the streets of New Orleans

James Carville, famed politico,
      Lived in New Orleans and held it dear
And Carville also chanced to know
      About the products built at Palantir.

Carville convinced the company
      (He was a paid advisor at the time)
To share their software, all for free
      To help N.O.P.D. to combat crime.

An altogether secret deal:
      Only N.O.P.D. and the mayor,
The folks at Palantir and Thiel
      Were any time informed or made aware.

"Fool!" Thus Saruman was named
      For secret hid from Council long ago.
And should not those be likewise shamed
      Who thought the city council need not know?

Policing with predictive code
      The guardians of security delights,
But leads us on a risky road
      Toward bias and ignoring civil rights.

Matalin, James Carville's wife
      Assures us all that we will be OK
As long as, in the course of life,
      No cousin or acquaintance goes astray.

So Palantir in place remains
      And now that we have heard of it, we must
Conclude that those who hold the reins
      Of power have betrayed the public trust.


This is part of the collection Verses for the Information Age by Ernest Davis