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Another World of Intelligence

VIRTUAL WORLDS are often fanciful environments that allow people to play out fantasies. But they may also provide tools that can fulfill very real government intelligence needs.

The Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA), which operates under the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) and sponsors “game-changing” breakthroughs and research, is trying to figure out a way to exploit virtual world technologies and create “synthetic” worlds in the Analyst Space for Exploitation (A-SpaceX) program, headed by Jeffrey Morrison.

Morrison explains that intelligence analysts are “drowning in data.” They have to screen piles of information and formulate hypotheses based on the information they’ve pored through. The goal is to create virtual worlds that can help analysts sift through and share data, which might also facilitate creativity.

One example of such a synthetic world is “decision space world,” which would allow analysts to group data onto a virtual workspace and basically turn the walls of their virtual cubicles into windows onto other workers’ worlds and displays. Analysts could pull in information from the other workspaces. Instead of seeing a two-dimensional Microsoft Word document, they might see the document in a node form, clustered up with the various ideas and notes that another analyst attached to it, as well as any other ideas or topics to which the original node is connected. The clusters of information then act as mental bookmarks in the multidimensional space.

“What is interesting is analysis is n-dimensional, there’s all kinds of different data and directions,” says Morrison. “By taking advantage of the virtual 3-D, I think of it as a way of reflecting the temporal aspects of information.”

Another approach is to annotate a real-world model of a city, for example, with connections to streaming video data from surveillance cameras, to turn the world into a virtual time machine. This would use tools from Video Analysis and Content Extraction (VACE), another IARPA project that aims at accelerating video review for intelligence. If successful, after a terrorist attack like the one in London in 2005, analysts would be able to pull video from different parts of the model and piece together a forensic investigation more quickly. The virtual world would provide a unique ability to jump around virtually and assist with forensic analysis.

“Cultural islands” are another plan of A-SpaceX. They’ll represent different areas and groups in the world, such as tribes in Afghanistan. They would use avatars to allow analysts to practice interacting with other cultures and gauge reactions to their behavior.

Morrison says A-SpaceX might be a good way to get newer analysts on track with their work. For example, he says, experienced analysts tend to have learned how to construct an elaborate “shoebox” structure to organize different ideas and information. By using A-SpaceX, new analysts may be able to learn how to do that more quickly.

IARPA isn’t the only government organization interested in virtual worlds. Paulette Robinson, assistant dean for teaching at the Information Resources Management College at National Defense University (NDU) in Washington, D.C., started the Federal Consortium for Virtual Worlds in 2007, and she’s seen interest skyrocket over the last year. At a July 2007 virtual world consortium meeting, 10 organizations participated, while Robinson expected more than 200 organizations at the consortium this year. Although those numbers also include academic and industry groups, Robinson says she’s seen around 100 federal government organizations express interest in working with virtual worlds.

Robinson says there are four major uses for virtual worlds. The first is education. For example, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have islands in the virtual world Second Life that provide information to visitors.

The second use is meetings; NDU is creating a center that the government can use for such a purpose.

The third use is training and simulations. Robinson cites a recent U.S. Air Force white paper on the future of training and learning, which she says posited that everyone in the Air Force should have his or her own avatar that could facilitate interaction in tutorials and other applications.

The final use is as an analytical space, which is what ASpaceX hopes to do. “That’s the one [use] I’m the most interested in, because I think it is pushing the environment to be more than it is,” Robinson says.

Robinson agrees with Morrison that the use of virtual worlds could be an effective tool for data analysis. “The interconnections and building of scenarios, those types of things, are really more complex than just reading a document,” she says. She adds, “being able to pull in pieces easily and collaborate on them in a 3-D space can only enhance the process.”

A lot of people are “playing” with virtual worlds, notes Morrison, but the goal of ASpaceX is to turn them into a tool that helps get work done.

As in the real world, security is a concern in the virtual space, and Robinson cautions that the government would have to be sure such a world was secure before employing it. Morrison says that ASpaceX is being developed completely internally for now (rather than using an outside vendor or virtual world), and it is still in a “seedling” phase. He is trying to figure out how the infrastructure for such worlds could be built, and then he says it will be up to ODNI to protect them.

While the U.S. government is attempting to exploit virtual worlds for its own benefit, there is a fear that terrorists may be doing the same thing.

For example, there has been speculation that a site such as Second Life, which allows meet-ups and money transfers, might provide an ideal forum to recruit terrorists. It could also be used to funnel money without leaving a trail.

Another IARPA project, called Project Reynard, aims to study the use of virtual worlds and online games for terrorist and other social dynamics, according to a recently unclassified ODNI report.