WASHINGTON, Nov. 21 (UPI) -- U.S. military and intelligence agencies are making increasing use of computer-generated virtual worlds for training and tele-working, and more controversially, to try to predict human behavior.
The capabilities of so-called synthetic world software have increased at a huge rate since they were pioneered for the public by such games as "SimCity" and "Second Life," and scientists working for the military and U.S. intelligence now want to capitalize on them.
The U.S. Navy recently announced it was looking for a contractor to develop "a highly interactive, PC-based Human, Social and Culture Behavioral Modeling simulation tool to support training for military planners for handling insurgencies, small wars, and/or emergent conflicts."
According to a procurement document posted online, the software "should be game-based" and must be "flexible enough" to allow users to design their own scenarios, maps and "unique situations" as "plug-in modules to experiment and train with."
"Scenarios developed with this platform should be militarily relevant but also include scenario options to use non-military instruments of national power from the Political, Military, Economic, Social, Infrastructure and Information portfolio," says the document.
The Navy project will join a lengthening list of programs seeking to leverage the power of such complex simulation programs for a wide variety of purposes.
"There's a real big push in the military for this kind of thing," defense technology analyst and blogger Noah Shachtman told United Press International.
And the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, effectively the research arm of the director of national intelligence, has a project to use such software to help analysts think creatively and share information.
Jeffery Morrison, who runs the Analyst Space for Exploitation project for the DNI, told Government Executive Magazine that the project, known as A-SpaceX, would use avatars -- the in-game representations of users -- only when needed.
"You're not going to have an avatar just for the sake of having one," he said.
Morrison told the magazine elements of synthetic world programs could be used to help develop computer tools that support analysts' judgmental and decision-making processes -- what Government Executive called "a true killer application that does not exist today."
Meanwhile, the U.S. Army's Research, Development and Engineering Command is buying a system called AW-VTT, for Asymmetric Warfare Virtual Training Technology, from San Mateo, Calif.-based Forterra Systems, a company that creates closed online virtual worlds for its customers.
According to the firm's Web site, the AW-VTT is a "training platform for joint, interagency and coalition operations in asymmetric and unconventional warfare, including counter-terrorism, force-protection and missions-other-than-war."
Forterra's civilian platform, the On-Line Interactive Virtual Environment, is one of many products being used or developed for training first responders to cope with chemical, biological or radiological incidents.
Uniquely, the AW-VTT uses actors to "play" the non-trainee avatars in the scenarios, rather than using software to generate their behavior, as is usually done, for instance, for victims in incident response training.
But the use of actors highlights the limits of synthetic world programs, say critics. Software can generate targets for first-person shooter-type training platforms, or even victims that emergency responders must "treat" in a particular way to save. But attempting to use them to predict or model human behavior is "a really daunting task," said Shachtman.
"A lot of counterinsurgency experts think this is the height of folly," said Shachtman of efforts to create simulations that would help predict how populations might react to military force.
He pointed to another modeling program developed by researchers at Purdue University now being used by U.S. Joint Forces Command in Suffolk, Va.
Known as the Synthetic Environment for Analysis and Simulations, the program was developed to help Fortune 500 companies with their strategic planning, according to the National Defense Industrial Association's magazine.
"The simulations gobble up breaking news, census data, economic indicators, and climactic events in the real world, along with proprietary information such as military intelligence," reported National Defense. It said the models developed for Iraq and Afghanistan were the most highly developed and complex, each made up of about 5 million individual nodes representing hospitals, mosques, pipelines and people.
"The idea of this kind of Iraq-in-a-box program is a bit ridiculous," Shachtman said.
But he said it was "a generally extremely positive development that the military wants to get a better idea about the societies in which they are operating."
"There's an American impulse to find a technological fix that is especially strong in the military," he added. "The technology-can-solve-everything-crew" were just latching on to the realization that "social and political and cultural and local and tribal knowledge is a key component of winning" in unconventional warfare.
Indeed, National Defense reported that Joint Forces Command analysts liked the SEAS program precisely "because of its ability to simulate the non-kinetic aspects of combat, such as the diplomatic, economic, political, infrastructure and social issues."