University of Southern California researchers
have begun work on a $12 million computational control
system to help combat commanders make quick, accurate
decisions in critical
method uses committees of virtual advisors, animated by
artificial intelligence, who share information and
negotiate with each other to suggest solutions.
Robert Neches and Pedro Szekely of the Information
Sciences Institute, which is part of the USC VIterbi School of
Engineering, are directors of the recently approved
DARPA-funded project on "Criticality-Sensitive Coordination,"
The ISI researchers will be working with engineers at
Vanderbilt University's Institute for Software Integrated
Systems and the Palo Alto, California-based Kestrel
"The goal of CSC is to help soldiers and multiple tactical
teams re-synchronize their mission plans when forced to
adapt to changed situations. Criticality-Sensitive
Coordination will enable them to respond more rapidly and
more accurately," said Neches, director of ISI's
Distributed Scaleable Systems division.
"Generations of officers have known how difficult it is to
issue the right orders in the right sequence under time
pressure to accomplish tactical objectives, and the difficulty
of coordinating changes in plans in a timely fashion to avoid
developing problems," Neches explained
"This effort is aimed directly at making sure that everyone
stays in synch when you shift to alternate plans, so no one
'zigs' when the other guy is 'zagging' - something that
sounds easy but is tremendously hard to do when time is
short and bullets are flying," he continued.
The CSC approach to coordination is what Neches describes
as "dynamic partial centralization."
Clustering for decision making: Affected
unit's assistant (red) makes
contact with counterparts at other units (orange) who in turn
needed, as needed, to more distant ones. The red unit
assistant becomes committee chairman in this
this process. click image to enlarge.
It begins by creating a detailed computer model of
the forces in a command area; their tasks, schedules,
capabilities, resources, dependencies on other units, status,
and dozens of other relevant variables.
In the system, each unit or subunit is represented by a
computer virtual "assistant." These assistants can interact
with each other.
"When units encounter a problem, such as delay, or
perform a task, the command system creates a 'cluster,'"
The assistants in the cluster form themselves into a
committee. The most critically affected unit's
committee chair. This assistant retrieves all task and
contingency plan information from the cluster members and
computes a proposed solution.
system then computes adjustments to the plans
of all cluster members using centralized solver techniques
and distribute the solution to all cluster members.
Resolving conflict: Two groups of units
blue) have formed clusters to deal with an
emergency, leading to conflicting demands as the clusters
overlap. The leaders
negotiate with each other to combine. click image to
If multiple clusters form, and have overlapping problems,
repeated, with each affected cluster negotiating,
through its leader, with other clusters.
This process can continue many steps. "Even then, it is still
far faster than humans can evaluate consequences of
possible actions," Szekely said. "And it will still be humans
who will act on the proposals presented."
The system depends on effective and speedy machine-
communications that can track all the relevant
variables in real time, Neches emphasizes. "But to a large
degree, this information is now available. The problem is
being able to comprehend the big picture quickly enough to
make the right decisions. And we think that this system will
be able to help."
The CSC program is on a 4-year time track, during which
researchers will start by using a relatively limited set of
inputs, adding more and more as the system gains
The new system builds on a previous USC-Vanderbilt
collaboration that created a consolidated flight operations
and logistics system for military aircraft that is now receiving
experimental use in Marine aviation units, and is expanding
to a wider and wider circle of aircraft types
under the terms of a $5.7 million contract awarded in
This earlier system creates and coordinates draft schedules
for air operations of a squadron and for the supporting
aircraft maintenance units, taking into account a huge range
of needs and variables, including availability of pilots,
mechanics, planes, runway slots, operation needs, weather
"This earlier experience helped us
the key principles and provided a number of critical lessons-
learned which are inspiring the new work," said Szekely.
Before the system, the task of drawing up such a schedule
took many hours of skilled officer time. The
well-tested system does the job - effectively - in a matter
of minutes, and the Marine Corps is making plans to further
develop it and deploy it throughout the Marine Corps.
Clustermakers: Pedro Szekely (left) and
Robert Neches. click image to enlarge.