TROY, N.Y. -- A multimillion-dollar research center intended to improve the U.S. Army's understanding of how technology impacts social interaction officially opened its doors this week at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute here May 3.
Funded by a $16.75 million five-year grant from the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, the Social Cognitive Networks Academic Research Center will study the interactions, interdependencies, and common underlying science of social, information and communication networks.
It will bring together government, industry and academic institutions to perform foundational, cross-cutting research into the complex integration of these social and cognitive interactions in order to enhance the effectiveness of network-enabled warfare and counterinsurgency.
RDECOM Deputy Commanding General Brig. Gen. Harold J. Greene, a Rensselaer alumnus, was on hand to open the Center. "RDECOM is here to keep the Army on the cutting edge of technology so that we can defend our country against any enemies that might threaten us," he said. "We're trying to empower our Soldiers with the techniques and capabilities they need to perform that mission. We're trying to unburden them and we're trying to protect them. What you're about to do here is critically important to that."
Rensselaer President Shirley Ann Jackson explained, "The Center for Social and Cognitive Networks will bring together our world-class scientists in the areas of computer science, cognitive science, physics, web science, and mathematics in an unprecedented collaboration to investigate all aspects of the ever-changing and global social climate of today."
RDECOM's Army Research Laboratory in Adelphi, Md., created a cooperative and technology transition agreements with the university last September to perform that critical social and cognitive research. The command's investment in the Center could reach $166 million within the next ten years.
The newly christened center will attempt to define the mutual interdependency and relationship among the genres. The research could result in the ability to predict and control the complex social interactions that occur in network-centric warfare.
"We're in a fight now with an enemy that's a little bit different and uses different techniques ... and networks are a key part of that," Greene said.
"In the past, social networks were limited by the distance of possible interactions. Thus, they were limited in size and there was no easy way in which a network could become huge and fast. Technology - cell phones, Facebook, LinkedIn - makes it much easier to be involved in the lives of many people who could be very distant from each other. This brings new opportunities and new dangers to society," said Center Director and Rensselaer Professor Boleslaw Szymanski.
The growth of networks in the last 20 years has produced different trends including irregular warfare. Since networks evolve, change and otherwise act as living organisms they are hard to understand, Greene emphasized. Military scientists have had trouble detecting patterns in guerilla tactics for the same reason. The actions of insurgents in Iraq or Afghanistan can appear random, but a closer inspection reveals a network of dependent interactions of social-cognitive information made up of tribes, leaders, relations and perceptions that can be uncovered and modeled.
The research taking place at Rensselaer may provide assistance to senior military leaders making difficult mission-essential decisions. The research could help the Army anticipate and influence the spread of information within insurgent groups, manage trust and support to insurgent groups and impact the decision making process of an insurgent network.
"The enemy is every bit as good as we are at using that network to our detriment so this is essential work, this is about defending our country," Greene said. "You must know that there is a direct application on the battlefield and we're using it today, but we don't really understand it yet so this is a critical element."
A liaison from the Army Research Laboratory will work closely with the new center while a Research Management Board with representation from several Army research, development and engineering centers has been created to help Rensselaer identify collaborative opportunities and provide advice in setting research goals. The board will also facilitate the transition of completed work into actual Army development programs.
The studies could go a long way in effectively fighting network-enabled warfare and counterinsurgency, Greene summarized.