UFO speculation spurs company to cut through Internet ‘nonsense’

In Washington, Congress and US government agencies are dedicating resources and studies into unexplained aerial phenomena after years of scepticism. — Photo by Michael Herren on Unsplash

Persistent speculation about sightings of unidentified aerial phenomena, popularly known as UFOs, is drawing attention from the US government – and inspiring a technology startup.

Enigma Labs, registered in Delaware, wants to build a repository to catalogue, score and crowdsource incidents, and expose hoaxes.

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“The Internet is full of nonsense and it’s very hard to get good information,” said Enigma Labs founder Alex Smith, who has a background in data science and aerospace. The company, whose name evokes the German code the UK cracked during World War II, is largely funded by Silicon Valley firms, Smith said, declining to give details.

In Washington, Congress and US government agencies are dedicating resources and studies into unexplained aerial phenomena after years of scepticism. The House Intelligence Committee in May held the first congressional hearing since the 1960s into unidentified flying objects. The Defense Department wants to remove any shame in reporting suspected UFOs, reasoning that public sightings could represent national security threats such as enemy drones or dangerous debris.

And the National Aeronautics and Space Administration announced in early June that it’s setting up a team in the fall for a scientific study into whether UFOs exist.

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Enigma’s Smith, who says she isn’t a UFO expert, said the idea for a data repository came in 2020 after talking with pilots. “Something was going on,” Smith said in a phone interview.

“It’s really these F-16, F-18 pilots who are our true North,” Smith said, referring to military pilots who have reported unexplained sightings from their operations or training. Most incidents are observed by US military personnel and also registered on technical sensors, but there still isn’t enough data to allow intelligence analysts to draw meaningful conclusions, Pentagon officials told lawmakers in May.

“There was really no destination for credible information, data and sharing of expertise and insights,” Smith said.

Private beta launch

Enigma has launched a private beta test of the project, with a plan to offer a public iPhone application in the fall, chief technology officer Patrick Corbett told Bloomberg Government.

The company’s logo is inspired by the now iconic image of the ‘Gimbal’ UFO, an official US Navy video of an 2015 encounter taken by a fighter jet from the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt off the eastern seaboard near the coast of Florida.

At first, Enigma is focusing on vacuuming up all the historical data. So far, it has ingested 270,000 sightings from the last 100 years from around the globe, Smith said. Sightings are indexed and cataloged. Enigma is making them accessible and open to any questions.

A key feature of the database will be the veracity score, which Smith compares to the Richter scale used for earthquakes. The goal is to remove confounding variables so that the system concentrates on incidents scored 95 and higher on a scale of 100.

“Anything that is identifiable – we use our technology to screen that out,” Smith said.

Civilians reporting these incidents may be looking at the International Space Station, the moon, drones, airplanes, or lighting.

“We can be rational about what people are seeing and focus on those 1-5% that aren’t as identifiable,” she said. In that case, Enigma would check sensor data, other sightings in the area, and radar, Smith added.

Enigma relies on artificial intelligence, programming languages, and “every cutting-edge technology” to screen and verify the sightings, including looking at the metadata of submissions, verifying where the person was, checking the weather, and cross-checking with any existing sensor data submitted in the area, Smith said.

Enigma is in possible contract discussions with a US defense agency for its capabilities, Smith said, declining to comment further as talks are preliminary.

Low-quality images

Avi Loeb, an astronomer at Harvard University, said Enigma Labs may have a hard time collecting high-resolution data.

“Even if you have a million cellphone images, they will always be blurry, because the cameras are not great,” Loeb said. “The cameras cannot resolve an object at a distance of mile and that’s why you need telescopes.” Cellphone images can’t produce conclusive or scientific data, Loeb said. He compared the low-quality data collection to a market that only sells plastic jewellery.

“You can buy the best jewellery you can find in that market, but it wouldn’t be high-quality,” Loeb said. “So my point is, let’s produce high-quality jewellery rather than go to that market.”

Galileo Project

Loeb founded the Galileo Project – a privately funded research project using telescopes to gather data. He said he talked to Enigma a couple times about its project.

Loeb said the Galileo data will be open for Enigma and anyone else worldwide who might want to use it. “After we get some high-quality data, I will be delighted to collaborate and share ideas with Enigma. I greatly enjoyed my preliminary conversation with them,” he said in an email.

He said the government likely has access to classified high-quality data on unidentified aerial phenomena, but uses it for identifying security threats rather than alien life.

“It’s just not their business,” Loeb said. “It’s the business of scientists to figure out something that is not easily identified as human-made or natural.”

Government work

The Defense Department last year established an Airborne Object Identification and Management Synchronization Group after a declassified report last June found the government couldn’t explain more than 140 incidents of “Unidentified Aerial Phenomena” (UAP).

Congress has also directed the agency to create rapid-response teams made up of Pentagon and intelligence community experts that can respond to sightings and conduct field investigations.

Meanwhile, NASA’s study will figure out what UAPs may exist, from national security threats to objects from outside our solar system. It will cost less than US$100,000 (RM444,200), according to Daniel Evans, the assistant deputy associate administrator for research at NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.

Once Enigma makes its application public, submitters will have drop-down menus to select characteristics such as location and shape of the object, said Corbett. Eventually, submitters could use voice note dials and secure drop, Corbett said.

While downloading the application will be free, Enigma will eventually charge fees for question and answer sessions, and for scientists to use derivative products of the data. – Bloomberg

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