Let’s use AI to stop fentanyl at the border and keep it from killing Americans

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In 2023, more than 112,000 Americans overdosed. He helped more than 70,000 people overdose on fentanyl, a particularly dangerous synthetic opioid. It’s tempting to focus on numbers, but remember that numbers are not statistics. they are people. They leave behind their parents, brothers, sisters, and children. They are a lost future. They are wasting their lives.

We owe it to the victims of this epidemic to do everything in our power to stop the flow of fentanyl from overseas (where the majority of fentanyl comes from) into American cities and towns. This poison is a direct threat to the safety of the American public. And while America’s borders are a point of grave concern, they are also a prime opportunity to seize fentanyl and harm the cartels responsible.

And here’s the good news. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) can leverage the power of artificial intelligence (AI) to identify trucks, ships, and planes attempting to smuggle fentanyl into the country.

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This technology should be used at borders and ports of entry (where nearly 85% of U.S. fentanyl enters the country) if all vehicles entering the country are accessible.


AI (artificial intelligence) represents an inexpensive and advanced way to search for illegal drugs at borders with minimal personnel. (Reuters/Dado Ruvik/Illustration/File photo)

We may not be able to completely stop the flow of fentanyl, but we can curb it. We can ensure that there is less money on the streets and less profit for the cartels behind it. We can raise the price and put it out of reach of more Americans.

Although AI is complex, the concept behind using AI to discontinue fentanyl is simple. AI enables pattern recognition at massive scale and the “transformation” of data into simpler interfaces for human domain experts. Gemini, ChatGPT, Claude can write responses to prompts by looking through billions of pieces of his content online, seeing what people are saying, and repeating the most common patterns.

AI at our ports of entry will do the same, albeit in a more targeted way. For example, it will examine the characteristics of every truck that has ever been busted for smuggling fentanyl. Where did they stop beforehand? On previous trips, how far into the United States did we stop after crossing the border? What cargo did they claim to be carrying?

While this only counts patterns that appear to be related to drug smuggling, there are countless other patterns that human analysts would never otherwise consider. For all we know, there may be a correlation between drug smuggling trends and tire brand and truck color.

AI could look at all this data and tell us exactly which vehicles might be smuggling fentanyl. That way, instead of conducting random searches where fentanyl is found in just a handful of the more than 19,000 trucks that cross the southern border each day, CBP could conduct targeted, data-driven searches. could be done. The AI-based system alerts CBP officers to trucks that need to be searched. The “hit rate” will be much higher than it is now.

While these drug attacks are valuable in themselves, they do not take into account the secondary effects. That would reduce the profits from smuggling fentanyl. Cartels spend billions of dollars manufacturing fentanyl and shipping it across borders.

Once we have it, that investment is lost with no return. Years of losses have convinced some cartels that smuggling fentanyl isn’t worth it, potentially further restricting the supply of fentanyl. After all, cartels are about profit, not ideology. They abandon efforts that don’t pay off.

Additionally, reducing cartel profits strengthens national security. Cartels use their profits to acquire powerful weapons, de facto soldiers, and control large swathes of Mexico. These areas are often inaccessible to U.S. and Mexican law enforcement and are dangerous near the border. It remains to be seen what cartels will allow America’s adversaries to collude with them in these regions if they pay the appropriate price.

Closer to home, AI will allow CBP to better leverage its most important, but overstretched, asset: its officers. Truck inspections take time. Any money not spent on inspecting harmless cargo can be spent on stopping other smuggling activities. Given that human trafficking is a major issue, it is important that agents have more time and are in a location where they can have the greatest impact.

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In addition, CBP conducts data-based analysis, which can take several days. When AI can perform the same task in minutes, it frees up tens of hours of agent time.

Finally, AI can help trace fentanyl to its source. With enough data, we will be able to detect whether the fentanyl is coming from factories in Mexico, manufacturers in China, or other sources that we have not discovered. And if you know the source, you can eradicate it.

While these drug attacks are valuable in themselves, they do not take into account the secondary effects. That would reduce the profits from smuggling fentanyl. Cartels spend billions of dollars manufacturing fentanyl and shipping it across borders.

AI offers another important benefit, especially at a time when Congress has not adequately allocated the funds the United States needs to secure its borders. That means the cost is low. An AI program targeting fentanyl smuggling costs less than $10 million. That’s cheaper than border surveillance drones, which cost $17 million upfront and more than $12,000 per hour to operate.


And compared to the “virtual wall”’s $30 billion price tag, AI looks like a bargain. This is not to say that DHS and CBP should not have access to the tools they need to secure the border, but these agencies should prioritize tools with the highest return on investment.

The fentanyl crisis is over. Political gamesmanship and bickering are one thing, but canceling concrete solutions that would save thousands of Americans is downright immoral. Congress and the Biden administration cannot afford to fail to act when so many lives could be saved with just a few million dollars.