Dangerous waters

Wilson’s world

David Wilson is editor of Engineeringtalk and Electronicstalk and associate editor of The Engineer

In their younger and more vulnerable years, my children loved playing games on their Nintendo Gamecube. More specifically, the games that really took their fancy were the sorts of strategy games that demanded care and skill, as well as a great deal of problem solving.

As I watched them play, I often thought about the Japanese software developers who had created those games and the enormous amount of time that they had taken crafting intriguing sets of original puzzles to suitably tax the mind of their young audience.

But it always seemed a pity to me that they would never really have a true measure of how strictly challenging their games were once they had been purchased in their millions. Yet if they could have gleaned such feedback from their user base, I knew that they could undoubtedly develop a new generation of software that would be even more testing.

Well, what do you know? Now it would appear that one games developer has actually done just that — cottoning on to my idea of accumulating data from its users to craft more effective software. But this new game isn’t from the usual gang of video publishers that you might be familiar with. No, this time around, the game in question has been developed by none other than engineers at the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

That’s right. Realising that they can leverage Joe Public’s love of computer games to their advantage, the folks there have developed a rather deadly game called Dangerous Waters that puts players into the virtual driver’s seat of one of several so-called Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessels (ACTUV).

Once in the hot seat, they are challenged to use the capabilities of the vessel to track enemy submarine commanders so they can’t escape into the ocean depths. After they have done so, the folks at DARPA will amass the data relating to their tracking tactics, and by doing so, develop real-world autonomous software for the ACTUV’s computers.

It’s a cunning idea alright, leveraging the combined knowledge of hundreds, or even thousands of users, to create next-generation defence software. And it’s an idea that many other developers of engineering software might also like to consider.

After all, by monitoring the use of their offerings across a huge user base, those software engineers might discover ways to make their software packages a darned sight easier to use than they are today. It certainly would be an improvement over accumulating the usual set of performance feedback logs that simply capture software instability issues, system, processor, memory size and type, and versions of an operating system.

Yet despite the inherent advantages to such data-collection techniques, I can’t help but hope that the software simulator developed by the clever chaps at DARPA isn’t excessively realistic. If it is, I feel that they may have given the game away to those parties more interested in developing sophisticated countermeasures instead.

Still, if you, like my own children, have no other pressing engagements this coming long weekend, you can always scope out the game here.

Happy hunting.

David Wilson

The Wilson’s world blog also forms part of the Engineeringtalk, Electronicstalk and Manufacturingtalk newsletters. To subscribe, go here for Engineeringtalk, here for Electronicstalk and here for Manufacturingtalk