Physics Today Q&A with Sean Gourley

Physics Today is the membership magazine of the American Institute of Physics. The magazine informs readers about important developments and provides a historical resource of events associated with physics. Physics Today Editor, Toni Feder, recently met with Primer CEO Sean Gourley and discussed Sean’s life as a researcher as well as the work Primer is doing to help government agencies and global enterprises monitor and respond to emerging threats from adversaries.

Excerpts from the interview include:

 For his 2006 PhD at the University of Oxford he applied artificial intelligence to insurgencies. The work was “on the fringes of the physics mainstream” and journals would tell him it was political science. In the past two decades, though, “modeling social systems and complexity has become a full member of the physics space,” he says. 

 Sean went on to become an entrepreneur. He is the CEO of the software company Primer, the second company he founded. It has offices in San Francisco, Washington DC, and London, and offers services with artificial intelligence to defense, intelligence, and commercial clients. 

When asked about how he pivoted from researching how insurgencies work to becoming an entrepreneur Sean recalled a lightbulb moment when he realized that to have an impact he needed to build something that could make his theory around insurgency behavior come to life. “Based on my experience looking at insurgencies, I got really into visualizing and manipulating high-dimensional data. My first company, Quid, used network and graph theory with visual interactions to let people explore landscapes of data.” 

He then founded Primer in 2015 to further advance his work in artificial intelligence. “We sell software that you can train to identify different pieces of structure, whether it’s weapons or points of interest or calls to action. We have connectors that let you plug into different data streams, whether it’s audio from radio, PDF documents, or emails. We’ve got those connectors, we’ve got the models, and then we’ve got the applications that run on top of those. It’s quite a complex set of components. The software maintains and generates the self-updating knowledge base for our users.”

When asked about his testimony before the US Chamber of Commerce AI Commission in July 2022 that the biggest impact artificial intelligence will have is in warfare, Sean noted that “We are still at the very earliest stages of artificial intelligence. The performance we are able to get and create with unencrypted radio content has been mind-blowing. Repeat that for images, for satellite data, for systems to avoid being shot down with UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles]. You have swarms of robots and intelligence capabilities, but you’ve also got disinformation. You’ve got self-driving cars, so you don’t need people to drive convoys of tanks, and strategic insights and analysis to predict moves in, say, the South China Sea. If my artificial intelligence is better than yours, I’m going to knock your drones out, and now I’ve got air dominance. The fact that the best artificial intelligence wins the battles, and will win the war, hasn’t been fully internalized by our defense and intelligence communities.”

“We are in a crucial battle over whether the US keeps its military advantage,” warned Sean. “The consequences are immense. It’s an arms race with artificial intelligence.”

To learn more about Primer’s work with the defense and intelligence communities, visit Read the full interview, visit: Q&A: Sean Gourley applies AI to war and shopping