The Federal Bureau of Investigation plans to break new law-enforcement ground this year by using sophisticated computers -- and so-called artificial intelligence -- to track down criminals. FBI agents assisted by innovative computer programs soon will conduct a major criminal investigation in a field experiment paralleling a probe into the same case by agents using traditional methods, according to assistant director William A. Bayse, who heads the bureau's Technical Services Division.
``We are coming right out of the prototype stage and into production now,'' says Mr. Bayse.
The assistant director said the side-by-side efforts would be designed to compare the efficiency of agents using traditional paper files and investigative techniques with agents aided by the specially programmed FBI computers. He declined to identify the target or timing of the investigation.
The experiment is designed to make more efficient use of the FBI's massive data storage systems, in part by having the computers themselves play an integral role in the investigative process. Some $12 million have been allocated for this purpose in the Reagan administration's proposed 1987 budget.
The FBI's efforts mirror similar high-tech computer advances underway at the Defense Department, the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and other government agencies, as well as in businesses and research organizations nationwide. In recent years, government and corporate decisionmakers have been turning increasingly to enhanced computer systems to help solve problems.
The form of artificial intelligence the FBI will exploit is known as an ``expert system.'' These programs draw on the recorded knowledge and experience of highly trained specialists to recognize relationships and draw inferences from a large pool of information.
At the FBI, the special computers are programmed to duplicate the investigative expertise of top FBI agents in identifying crime-related patterns while searching through the FBI's extensive computerized files.
The computers might assist agents, for example, in determining when to initiate surveillance of a suspect, when to make an arrest, and even when to drop an investigation. They have been programmed to match their findings against federal statutes to weigh the likelihood a law has been violated. The programs have also been set up to follow strictly the FBI's rules of conduct for investigations.
In effect, the computer becomes an advisor that can be consulted by an investigating agent at various stages of a case.
``If you saw it operate you would think a human being was doing it,'' says Bayse.
The FBI's artificial intelligence program is slated for eventual use in high-priority investigative areas such as counterterrorism, counterintelligence, narcotics trafficking, and labor racketeering. Indeed, bureau officials see potential applications across the spectrum of FBI operations.
``Our plan is to embed this technology with our major information systems across every application area from financial management, decision support, planning, investigations, forensic science . . . ,'' Bayse says.
Basically, an expert system distills into computer terms the analytic thinking of a top FBI agent hot on the trail of a major criminal. The computer's logic is developed after many hours of debriefing expert investigators concerning their experience in past cases. When confronted with a particular investigative problem, the computer imitates the thought patterns of the human experts.
If an expert investigator retires or is on vacation when a crisis arises, the expert system programs ensure that much of his savvy remains immediately available to the federal agents working to solve the case.
``In effect, it makes these guys immortal,'' says Louis Robinson, publisher of The Spang-Robinson Report, a Palo Alto, Calif., trade publication specializing in the artificial intelligence industry.
``What you want is something that puts together . . . an investigative package that includes the types of violations and the likelihood that a federal statute has been violated,'' says Bayse. Rather than having the agent make time consuming multiple inquiries within the bureau's computerized data bank to begin assembling a case file, the FBI's expert system makes all of those inquiries and analyzes the results automatically.
``The benefits that we have seen in the analysis of agents' time are substantial,'' Bayse says. And he stresses, ``We never look at automation to replace people, but rather to make them more effective.''
Bayse notes that one experiment by the FBI found that, in some instances, even with total recall and perfect accuracy, the computer missed the point and couldn't make the case. But an agent was able to fill in the missing pieces.
``Some portion of the time the agent just has instincts, knowledge, expertise the computer doesn't have,'' Bayse says.
FBI officials are confident that, together, the computer and the well-trained FBI agent will become an increasingly formidable law-enforcement team.