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Army Researchers Study Computer, Human Networks

By Jian DeLeon
Emerging Media, Defense Media Activity

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.”

 

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