Cracker JACK Set for Combat (The Age Newspaper)

by Adam Turner (The Age)

July 15 2003

The stress, fatigue and fear experienced by combat soldiers will be recreated on the virtual battlefields of Britain, thanks to an Australian software developer.

Agent Oriented Software has won the contract to provide artificially intelligent cyber-soldiers for the British Ministry of Defence's electronic war games.

Part of the ministry's Human Variability in Computer Generated Forces corporate research program, the troops exist within simulations as independent software entities known as intelligent software agents.

The combatants are based on AOS's JACK, Java applications that are bestowed with initial beliefs, desires and intentions, and then set free to interact with their environment.

Using JACK, AOS can model intelligence and also the human frailties that affect decision-making, says AOS business application manager Nick Howden.

"Computer-generated forces should exhibit real military doctrine and tactics. But on top of that, they should also exhibit the human traits of soldiers," Howden says.

"We look at behaviour moderators, which might be caffeine and other drugs, fatigue, fear - all the sorts of things that make you modify your behaviour and adopt non-military behaviour. One might be to throw your gun down and run away - now, that's not in the tactics handbook, but soldiers actually do that.''

JACK agents are digital chameleons designed to easily interact within virtual and real environments. They can play any role in a computer simulation, from a soldier to an electrical storm, or control devices such as vehicles or manufacturing robots.

Once interfaced with its surrounds - whether it be via the sensors and controls of an unmanned vehicle or the input/output of a simulation - an agent begins its charade, modifying its beliefs, desires and intentions according to its changing environment. The agent plays its part so well that other objects interacting with it - whether they be people, machines, applications or other agents - believe the agent really is the entity it is pretending to be. This allows agents to be dropped into almost any situation with minimal modifications, says Howden.

"People don't want to build an agent system, they want to add agents to whatever they're doing. You put an agent into the bit that agents are good at and you use other things to do the rest. We've very much built it to be plug-in-able," Howden says.

AOS was founded in 1997 by researchers from the Australian Artificial Intelligence Institute to take on a small Defence Science and Technology Organisation contract. The company has former University of Melbourne and RMIT researchers on staff and works in collaboration with both institutions.

The decision to write JACK in Java is a key component of its flexibility, says Howden.

"In 1997 we chose to go with Java completely and it was a little bit more of a courageous decision then than it is now. At AAII there was a system called dMARS Agent System written in C++ and just managing it on the different systems you had to port it to was a nightmare," he says.

"The focus with AOS was really to be a product company and to build a commercial, robust intelligent agent product, as opposed to a research system that people like to play with.''

A British office was established 18 months ago to win European work such as the Ministry of Defence contract, and AOS also collaborates with the University of Cambridge Institute for Manufacturing.

JACK is deployed in a variety of fields, such as air-traffic control, weather forecasting and manufacturing, but most of AOS's work is in defence.

"Defence is much more into looking at new technologies that can expand their capability over the coming years. They've been very much early adopters . . . We're using that as a launch pad to move out into the commercial world and the international markets,"Howden says. "It's sort of like a co-operative research group but not officially. We work together, they expand their capabilities and we make our product better and get feedback from them as users.''

AOS is participating in this week's Autonomous Agents and Multiagents Systems conference (AAMAS'03) in Melbourne and is running a workshop on deploying agent systems.

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