PORTLAND, Ore. The Social Cognitive Networks Academic Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) will enlist engineers and scientists to uncover the "signatures" of global terror networks.
The 10-year, $35 million probe, funded by the U.S. Army Research Laboratory, will create a virtual network utilizing thousands of software agents that simulate adversarial users interacting with ordinary citizens. The goal is to understand how terrorists are recruited via global networks.
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"Unlike personal interactions where trust is built by watching the other's body language or the tone of their voice, you only have the cognitive element online. As a result the building of trust is much slower," said Boleslaw Szymanski, professor of computer science at RPI and center director. "We want to attach electrodes to our subjects and observe the physical effects while they are having these cognitive interactions over the network in order to identify the signature of how this trust is built."
The program's scope reflects the complexity of the engineering effort required of RPI scientists in developing an accurate simulation that includes thousands of online users. The simulations will be run on Blue Gene supercomputers, Power-based Linux clusters and AMD Opteron processor-based clusters that provide the 70 TeraFLOPS of computing power.
Besides trust building, the simulations will model four other aspects of social cognitive networks: dynamic processes (how interactions influence people), organizational networks (how hierarchies of influence are formed), game theory (ways of countering adversarial networks) and how a scientific understanding of human cognition facilitates an understanding of the process that turns ordinary citizens into radicals.
For example, the failed car bombing in Times Square was allegedly carried out by a Pakistani who had recently become a U.S. citizen and had worked for an investment firm.
"Cognitive processes underlay how people react," said Szymanski. "For instance, there is only so much information a person can process at the same time, and in that sense our reaction to what we see is highly dependent on the way the information is being presented."
Project partners include IBM Corp., Northeastern University and City University of New York. Other collaborators include Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, New York University, Northwestern University, University of Notre Dame, University of Maryland and Indiana University.