USA — Army Researchers Study Computer, Human Networks

WASHINGTON, Dec. 2, 2010 — Com­put­er net­works and social net­works depend on inter­ac­tion between indi­vid­u­als –- whether it’s indi­vid­ual machines or human beings. The sci­ence of these com­plex inter­ac­tions shares some com­mon under­ly­ing themes, and a team of Army researchers hopes that exam­in­ing these net­works will pro­vide fea­si­ble solu­tions.
“Today’s war­fare and all types of mil­i­tary activ­i­ties are tru­ly per­me­at­ed, if you wish, with net­works. The most obvi­ous ones are com­put­er net­works and com­mu­ni­ca­tion net­works, and our sol­diers use them con­stant­ly and for numer­ous pur­pos­es in numer­ous diverse ways,” Alexan­der Kott, chief of the Army Research Laboratory’s net­work sci­ence divi­sion, said yes­ter­day dur­ing a “DOD Live” blog­gers round­table.

Kott said his posi­tion focus­es on net­work-relat­ed phe­nom­e­na and serves him well in his oth­er role as man­ag­er of the Net­work Sci­ence Col­lab­o­ra­tive Tech­nol­o­gy Alliance, a pro­gram ini­ti­at­ed by the Army about a year ago, which involves about 27 uni­ver­si­ties, a few com­pa­nies, and about 200 researchers who look at the basic sci­ence of net­works. Despite being well-versed in the tech­nol­o­gy of net­works, Kott said, mod­ern sol­diers aren’t just inter­act­ing with com­put­er sys­tems.

“Our sol­diers also deal on a dai­ly basis with even more impor­tant genre of net­works — human net­works, net­works of humans con­nect­ed by com­plex social and coor­di­na­tive links,” he said. These social links that can be chal­leng­ing to tra­verse, he added, not­ing that troops often have to deal with cul­tur­al, ide­o­log­i­cal and adver­sar­i­al issues in addi­tion to nego­ti­at­ing between civil­ians and local gov­ern­ments. This com­plex inter­ac­tiv­i­ty between var­i­ous tan­gi­ble resources can be prob­lem­at­ic, he said.

“All these dif­fer­ent gen­res of net­works — they’re not inert mass­es,” he said. “They are not some­thing pre-engi­neered and con­stant. They are liv­ing, evolv­ing crea­tures. They live their mys­te­ri­ous lives. They grow. They shrink. They branch out. They merge. They have these mys­te­ri­ous inter­ac­tions between them­selves and with­in them­selves. They are com­plex, adap­tive sys­tems. They pro­duce all kinds of puz­zling, non­lin­ear, dif­fi­cult-to-pre­dict behav­iors.”

To ensure net­work reli­a­bil­i­ty, the Army is look­ing into a tech­nol­o­gy known as dis­rup­tion-tol­er­ant net­work­ing, said Robert Cole of the Army’s Com­mu­ni­ca­tions-Elec­tron­ics Research, Devel­op­ment and Engi­neer­ing Cen­ter.

“That’s a tech­nol­o­gy that will be impor­tant in future Army net­works,” Cole said. This focus on reli­able and sta­ble com­mu­ni­ca­tions, he explained, is why the Army has been hes­i­tant to adapt com­mer­cial tech­nolo­gies such as cel­lu­lar com­mu­ni­ca­tion, which could be com­pro­mised on the bat­tle­field despite recent advances in smart phone tech­nol­o­gy. “Cel­lu­lar com­mu­ni­ca­tions means you have to have some type of cell phone tow­ers on the bat­tle­field,” Kott said, “and they are tremen­dous­ly attrac­tive and vul­ner­a­ble tar­gets.” How­ev­er, he added, the mil­i­tary does see the tac­ti­cal advan­tage such a com­mu­ni­ca­tion tool would pro­vide, and is work­ing toward adapt­ing a more depend­able, less vul­ner­a­ble ver­sion of that tech­nol­o­gy.

“The Army has been invest­ing research and devel­op­ing the mobile, ad hoc net­works where every radio on the bat­tle­field is known in the net­work and you are not reliant on a cell-phone tow­er or one node. … Of course, many of the fea­tures of the smart phones that are so attrac­tive today and will grow, [and] inevitably, cer­tain­ly will be explored in our mil­i­tary net­works as well,” he said.

Researchers also are con­duct­ing projects to direct­ly ben­e­fit ground teams in Afghanistan and Iraq to give them an advan­tage in both com­bat and non­com­bat sit­u­a­tions. “For exam­ple,” Kott said, “we have recent­ly com­plet­ed research that shows prop­a­ga­tion process­es, prop­a­ga­tion of influ­ence, prop­a­ga­tion of trust and dis­trust, prop­a­ga­tion of beliefs and con­vic­tion with­in human net­works. This process can actu­al­ly be at least par­tial­ly pre­dictable. It can be mod­eled. It can be ana­lyzed.” Kott said it’s clear why the Army is mov­ing in this direc­tion.

“We are oper­at­ing on a new bat­tle­field — a very, very com­plex, net­worked bat­tle­field of insur­gency in par­tic­u­lar,” he said, “where it is so impor­tant to under­stand those com­plex net­work phe­nom­e­na and to be able to influ­ence them.”

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)

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