Friday, November 20, 2009

Conflict and Computer Science by Aaron Mannes

Conflict has often been a driver for technological advances and computer science has been no exception. The requirements of code breaking during World War II led to the construction of Colossus – the first totally electronic computer device, while the Internet was originally constructed to provide a secure communications network for the military in the event of a nuclear war. While terrorist use of technology, and particularly the Internet, receives tremendous press, the current conflict is also sparking important developments in computer science that will have impacts far beyond the security realm.

My employer, the Laboratory for Computational Cultural Dynamics (LCCD) at the University of Maryland is one group seeking to develop the theory and algorithms required for tools to support decision-making in cultural contexts. LCCD has developed numerous systems including T-Rex, which can rapidly scan text in several languages and convert it into a database and SOMA (Stochastic Opponent Modeling Agents) which can extract rules of likely behaviors by organizations from their past behaviors.

LCCD sponsors an annual conference, the International Conference on Computational Cultural Dynamics (ICCCD2009) – to be held this year on December 7-8 at the University of Maryland. Papers being presented include efforts to model insurgencies as well as piracy in Somalia, a tool used to map the Indonesian blogosphere, and SCARE (Spatial Cultural Abduction Reasoning Engine) which can help predict the locations of weapons caches in an urban environment. (See the full program here.)

Augmenting the Mind

The human brain is an impressive system, which also builds models. In some regards it far exceeds anything on the horizon in the realm of computer science. The ability of human beings to take information and place it in context and draw conclusions from it is profound. We build complex models of how the world works in order to function in it. But computers can process some forms of data far faster than humans and will do so systematically. Human minds cannot quickly process large quantities of data. In attempting to make sense of large amounts of information a human beings may discount or ignore information that does not fit in their model of how the world works – or alternately draw significant conclusions based on a very limited amount of data. Imagine an economist ignoring issues of ethnic identity in analyzing a nation’s policies or a political philosopher focusing on ideology while ignoring logistics in studying a terrorist group’s behavior. In short, computer systems are capable of substantially augmenting the power of human reason.

Things to Come

The impacts of these technologies will be profound. Real-time data collection and processing will potentially improve decision-making in many ways. Beyond providing better intelligence, it will allow the creation of in-depth virtual environments, which facilitate training to operate in different cultures. The Marines and Army have built mock Afghan and Iraqi villages staffed by actors for this kind of training. These are terrific facilities, but a computer simulation could inexpensively augment the real world training.

According to the late Alexander George, a renowned scholar of the presidency, many foreign policy accidents have occurred because leaders were unable to see the situation from the perspective of their counterpart. Leaders make assumptions about their opposite number and his (or her) actions based on an intuited model of their behavior. Models not operating on limiting assumptions may provide alternate explanations for behaviors and thereby give leaders the insight to avoid escalating conflicts that arose from misunderstandings.

But these systems will also have civilian applications. Game theory systems used to predict the behavior of adversaries may also be used to understand the behavior of business competitors. Tools that can analyze the opinions expressed on jihadi websites could also be used to analyze public opinion for marketing research. Models that identify the outbreak of terrorism and insurgency may also be turned to studying the outbreak of disease.

But this focuses on applications designed for policy-makers – and no doubt there will be many such tools. But only twenty years ago, very few people imagined a ubiquitous, international system that facilitated instantaneous communications and put vast amounts of information virtually at every user’s fingertips. Models and game theory will not remain in the realm of executives and professional analysts. They will also become everyday tools used by regular people to better plan their activities and make decisions about their lives.

In this vein, ICCCD2009 could prove to be a fascinating glimpse into the future.

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