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?