Weapons and Technology from the Gaming Industry?

The Economist reported that the U.S. Air Force has put in a request to procure 2,300 Sony PlayStation 3 (PS3) consoles — not for personnel entertainment, but to hook together to build a supercomputer for ten percent of the cost of ordering one. This isn’t a one-time fluke, either. The USAF has already built and is operating a computer constructed from 336 PS3s. U.S. troops are using slightly modified off-the-shelf electronics for everything from calculating firing trajectories to controlling drone RPVs.

While I’m perfectly happy as a taxpayer to see cost-effective procurement, examples such as these give me a very uneasy feeling… for a number of reasons. First is the obvious fact that anything that is commercial and open can eventually be cracked, hacked, snooped, and sabotaged. Granted, for some applications that’s unlikely or doesn’t matter, but controlling drones? Second, even the example of the USAF procurement gives the “bad guys” new ideas and capabilities. And third, somehow the thought of our supposedly high-tech military having to rely on the gaming industry for the latest technology — and they are beginning to do so, thanks in part to complicated and Byzantine U.S. military procurement regulations — suggests that there’s something a bit askew in our national priorities, especially when a Nigerian national paying with cash, carrying no luggage, traveling alone, and already on the terrorist watch list can get to the point of almost detonating an incendiary device on an aircraft about to land in Detroit.

We don’t seem to be able to carry through on relatively routine security measures; we rely on gamers for high technology; we haven’t been able or willing to build a supersonic replacement for the Concorde; we’re behind the entire rest of the world in implementing high-speed ground/rail transport; and our most profitable industries are financial manipulation and litigation.

Now… it also turns out that some of these gaming devices provide essentially the guts of supercomputers… and that they have far-reaching medical implications.

For all this, I must say that I have to salute the gaming industry… but what exactly does that say about the state of American drive, initiative, and technology in every other area?

Are we so into video gaming that the rest of our high-tech industry needs to subsist on the fruits and scraps of electronic entertainment?

6 Responses to “Weapons and Technology from the Gaming Industry?”

  1. Scott says:

    This is interesting, not because electronic entertainment is more advanced than the high-tech industry, but because of Sony's business model. PS3's are sold at a loss, assuming that they will make up the difference in game licensing, etc.

    So the real punchline is that the USAF is leveraging this cost differential to get a supercomputer at a cheaper price. They could have very easily purchased IBM modules that have the same processor as the PS3, but for substantially more money.

  2. hob says:

    A couple of points 1. If the US Miltary shows close to their real offensive/defensive capabilities it would give legitimacy to foreign militaries and their political/financial influences within their respective countries. Something which is actively discouraged due to US political/economic/social systems (the US likes to show that solutions to major problems come out of civilian rather than military sectors) 2. For all intensive purposes the wars/conflicts that the US engages in at present, at least on the US Military part, are simply good environments to test warfare theories/applications using components that opponents are known to have access to, the collected data being used to create valuable simulation models 3. War is lies, misinformation is a standard tactic–perhaps they wish their opponents to think/react along those lines.
    4. Civilian security, despite what governments promise will always be sub par. How would authority levels for varied branches of society work in any nation if defensive/offensive competency training was given in an even handed manner to all agencies/branches.
    5. American drive, initiative, and technology is alive and well, its just that there is too much protectionism from established buisness models buying out or suppressing emerging models. The small electronics industry seems to be evolving faster becuase many nations have small electronics manaufacturing–there are not many countries that can build concordes/comercial airliners.

  3. Brad R. Torgersen says:

    My thoughts…

    1) The current DHS security at the airports is a semi-joke as long as personnel are prevented from properly profiling. We live in fear of profiling because that equates to "racism," even though proper profiling would have a far greater impact on the terror problem — at far less cost — than the current see-no-evil system. For my money, DHS was a federal jobs program effected so that the suits in D.C. could say that they had "done something" in the wake of 9/11/2001.

    2) At age 35 I am becoming something of an oldster in my unit, but I can see why the branches might want to begin adapting PS or other gaming technology for military application. I remember the commander of my previous unit bringing in his console and one of the modern warfighting games he had for it, and running his young MP's through standard sweep and movement tactics, bounding overwatch, etc. Heck, when you go to the U.S. Army sim center at Fort Lewis or elsewhere, to fire on the sim ranges, it's basically just gamer technology adapted to use CO2-pulsed M4, M249, M240B, etc. For training purposes, there are huge advantages to using games and game devices, for expediency alone. When 90% of your incoming crop of personnel are already well-versed in how to play and operate a console, why not use consoles and mission-adapted games? Better than devoting hundreds of millions building a separate DoD system from the ground up, that will arrive 10 years late and over-budget, and be way behind in terms of the technology then currently being sold by commercial manufacturers.

    3) I only see a tiny slice of the entire military, but from this Chief's perspective, the sclerotic purchasing and deployment model used by the DoD is the #1 obstacle facing many line, Reserve and Guard units. How many purchasing decisions made in D.C. are made because the troops on the ground need it that way, versus some suit in Congress or the Senate securing a no-bid contract for his or her pet compan(ies) back home? The Army's current pixilated uniform is a good example. It's poor camouflage in any environment, wears out too quickly in-theatre, the velcro gets worn down or falls off, etc, etc. What the heck was wrong with the BDU or the DCU?? Nothing, from my perspective. You could have made a few minor changes to those uniforms, to accomodate body armor, but that was about it. There is almost nothing about the ACU which makes it so fantastically suprior to the BDU and ACU as to require wholsesale swap-out across the Army. And in fact, there are many significant problems with the ACU that make me highly question why we moved to the ACU in the first place? I hope to heck some actual soldier input goes into the 2nd Generation ACU, because Lord knows the original ACU needs a heap of work, and there are lots of us oldsters who keep our BDU and DCU in our closets still, wondering why we had to give them up when there was nothing wrong with them in the first place.

  4. Badelaire says:

    Lots of great points above. I won't grouse about anything governmental, but I'll just note that it's further evidence that the "video game industry" is definitely no longer the mickey-mouse form of entertainment many thought it was for a long time. Top shelf video games cost as much to create and market as many Hollywood movies, and can pull in similar profit margins. The convergence in modern console systems of internet gaming, web browsing, blue-ray and DVD playing, Netflix streaming…these companies realize that the people interested in their markets – a large percentage of them white collar 30-something guys like myself – have some serious disposable income and like their high-priced toys.

    The money drives the technology, and there is a lot of money to be had there…

  5. Michael says:

    for a further take on this kind of technology, check out Cory Doctorow's "Little Brother."
    Book for young adults, but great fun.

  6. pat says:

    "For all this, I must say that I have to salute the gaming industry… "

    That is the right sentiment. American drive, initiative, and technology is well and good. Gamers just made it cheaper for everyone to achieve their goals. In the mid 90s, while in grad school, I remember spending about $30k of my advisor's money to get a computer system (very fast at that time) for our lab to run some advanced simulations. Recently, I had to purchase a system to address a similar need and I ended up buying a gamer's laptop for $1800. It is faaaaar faster than the $30k system.

    Even a casual perusal of annual reports of major hardware (intel, nvidia etc) companies immediately reveals the enormous influence gamers have setting their strategies. These days one hears of mobile internet being the driving force but I bet mobile games (ipot touch, psp portable etc) are a significant contributor.

    I, for one, am grateful to the gamers!