Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Future of Simulation

by Ronald "Skip" Cole

I want to ask you a favor. I ask that you spend sometime in the next week or so, maybe while in the shower, or stuck in traffic, pondering a question. This is a question that I and others have thought about for several years, and I think we are just scratching the surface as to where the answers will lead us. So I sincerely hope you can give it some thought, and share back here any insights that you may have.

The question is this, "How can simulation improve human decision making?"

The ability for people to easily and inexpensively create synthetic or ‘virtual’ environments is relatively new. We can project that this ability is going to get even more inexpensive and powerful. Imagine that, just as any educated adult is expected to be able to write a document with a word processor, in the future, any educated adult will be expected to be able to use software to create virtual worlds, worlds that can be used for educational or even experimental purposes. How will that change the real world?

There is nothing, by the way, theoretically holding us back from this future. It is just a matter of good interface design and refining our educational processes. What are now graduate level courses in simulation design will soon become quite common fare - there are not a lot of profound secrets there. Indeed, as simulations have to work with us common humans in the loop, most of the lessons seem intuitive when stated out loud.

As the printing press ushered in a new age of creativity and improved communication, the ability to create interactive worlds will do so also. Just as Gutenberg probably could not have foreseen a talented 18 year old writing "Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus" for mass distribution using his 'movable type,’ it is hard for us to see all there is to come. So the time spent pondering this question may be time very well spent.

How could simulations affect your personal life? Are you having a hard time convincing someone of something? Don't you just wish you could let them step into a world in which they have already made the decision you want them to make, so they could see how better off they would be? We try to do this with each other all of the time. Painting a shared vision of a common future is a very powerful technique in persuasion. Technology will help us do this with even greater saliency.

How will simulations affect commerce? Imagine if anyone doing a business proposal, for a restaurant say, had to submit a simulation of how the restaurant would function; when the customers would come in, how they would be treated, etc. Currently banks don't demand such an item because it would be too expensive to create, but the price is coming down on such software. Modern software techniques and the open source movement are driving the costs down, and will continue to do so. Software, once written, is written, and if it is well written, other software can be built on top of it.

How will international affairs be different when all nations could see, maybe just a little bit, further down the line, when making their plans? What if any nation planning aggressive action could see how things are likely to pan out? This ability might not be enough to stop all wars, but it may at least prevent some of the more foolish ones.

What happens to the human race as its members grow in experience and improved communication? How will our 'collective intelligence' be changed? The ability to predict and communicate second and third order effects has been traditionally been poor, and it will never be perfect. Look closely behind any modern catastrophe, and you will find tortured Cassandras: People who tried to give warning, but were not heard. These voices have been drowned out by the charlatans, noise and expediency. Creating platforms to allow ideas to play themselves out in more objective settings seems like something we must do. It is hard to put a value on not making bad decisions.

I have been working on an Open Simulation Platform (OSP) at the United States Institute of Peace. This is a tool that could allow anyone to create, conduct, refine and share online training simulations. I have been exploring its use in helping prepare peacebuilders, by providing another possible tool for them to use relying on cheap, ubiquitous simulation technology. Innovations have traditionally been fueled by great conflicts. The 'space race' gave us microelectronics and microwave ovens. The cold war produced the Internet - a distributed network that could survive a nuclear attack. If the 'fuel' that drives the innovation toward inexpensive, ubiquitous simulation technology is the pursuit of peace, I think that matters. And I’m proud that we are playing our part in this next stage of the mankind’s progression.

So please, share back with us any thoughts you may have. And if you are interested in helping us on this journey, drop an email to OSP at

The views expressed here are purely the author’s are not necessarily those of the United States Institute of Peace, which does not advocate specific policies.