Computer Modeling

Computer Modeling


Modeling, in the technical use of the term, refers to the translation of objects or phenomena from the real world into mathematical equations. Computer modeling is the representation of three-dimensional objects on a computer, using some form of software designed for the purpose. Among the uses of computer modeling are war games and disaster simulations, situations in which computers offer a safe, relatively inexpensive means of creating or re-creating events without the attendant loss of life or property.

Mathematics, Computers, and Modeling Software

Mathematical modeling dates to advances in geometry and other disciplines during the late eighteenth century. Among these was the descriptive geometry of French mathematician Gaspard Monge, whose technique was so valuable to Napoleon's artillery that it remained a classified defense secret for many years. Nearly one and a half centuries later, at the end of World War II, mathematicians and scientists working for the United States war effort developed a machine for readily translating mathematical models into forms easily grasped by non-mathematicians.

That machine was the computer, and during the last two decades of the twentieth century, varieties of three-dimensional modeling software proliferated. These included any number of computer animation and gaming packages, as well as varieties of computer-aided design/computer-aided manufacturing (CAD/CAM) systems. CAD allowed engineers and architects, for instance, to create elaborate models that allowed them to "see into" unbuilt structures, and to test the vulnerabilities of those structures without risking lives or dollars.

One notable variety of three-dimensional software is virtual reality modeling language, abbreviated VRML and pronounced "ver-mal." Necessary for representing three-dimensional objects on the World Wide Web (that portion of the Internet to which general users are most accustomed), VRML creates a virtual world, or hyperspace, that can be viewed through the two-dimensional computer screen. By pressing designated keys, the user is able to move not only up, down, right, and left, but forward and backward, within this virtual world.

Disasters, Wars, and Other Simulations

After the space shuttle Columbia crashed on February 1, 2003, analysts at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) used modeling software applied by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) for studying crashes. In applications such as those for the NASA and NTSB studies, the purpose is to understand not only what happened, but how and why it happened, and what caused it.

The more data available on a disaster, the better the model, and this in turn gives investigators more accurate tools for analysis. In the end, however, there is no substitute for human reasoning. For example, an NTSB simulation of the Swissair Flight 111 crash in September 1998 tracked the course of a fire from the cockpit that eventually brought down the plane, but it did not explain what caused the fire.

Still, the simulation is invaluable inasmuch as it provides human minds with an extraordinarily accurate and vivid source of information as to the exact sequence of events that took place during a disaster. NASA analysts used computer modeling to study the first great shuttle disaster, that of Challenger in 1986, but the technology of 2003 was vastly superior. Not only was a $2,000 computer capable of running simulations that required a $75,000 machine 17 years earlier, but advances in graphics—spurred, ironically, by the seemingly frivolous demands of gaming and the movies—had resulted in a vastly more accurate picture of what happened.

War games and terror simulations. The connection between entertainment and simulation in general, as well as computer modeling technology in particular, has not been lost on the U.S. security and defense leadership. In the immediate aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack, federal officials brought together a team that included David Fincher, director of Seven and Fight Club; Steven E.

A steel structure expert at the University of California, Berkeley, studies a three-dimensional computer model of the airliner hitting the 96th floor of the World Trade Center. AP/WIDE WORLD PHOTOS.
A steel structure expert at the University of California, Berkeley, studies a three-dimensional computer model of the airliner hitting the 96th floor of the World Trade Center.

De Souza, screenwriter for Die Hard; and Spike Jonze, director of Being John Malkovich. The assignment placed before these creative minds was one ideally suited to Hollywood: to imagine scenarios in which terrorists attacked the United States.

These scenarios, along with other forms of input, have helped form the basis for simulations by groups such as the Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT), a research center at the University of Southern California at Los Angeles. ICT is one of many entities in which the federal government invests nearly $100 million a year for the purpose of developing military simulations—studies that, unlike the disaster models for NTSB or NASA, are concerned not so much with what has happened as with what could happen. The Department of Defense also has its own simulation think tanks, including the U.S. Army Simulation, Training, and Instrumentation Command, known as STRICOM.

Simulations developed by ICT are mind-boggling in their degree of verisimilitude. The "virtual humans" on screen are not automatons; rather, they have been programmed with personalities and emotions, like characters in a movie. Cutting-edge computer technology makes it possible to even simulate smells. In an unusual merger of public and private sectors, ICT has sold commercial versions of games it co-produced with the U.S. Army.

The purpose of simulations produced by ICT and others involved in computer modeling goes far beyond mere entertainment: at a fraction of the expense and risk involved in war games involving real troops and equipment, commanders and their subordinates can study and learn from battle. Computer modeling also makes it possible to study dozens of different terror, but without any human or financial cost. By providing laboratories for instruction, simulations may prevent losses in real situations.



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Lee, David B., Lt. Col., USAF. "War Gaming: Thinking for the Future." Airpower Journal < > (March 14, 2003).

U.S. Air Force Wargaming Institute. < > (March 14, 2003).

U.S. Army Program Executive Office for Simulation, Training, and Instrumentation. < > (March 14, 2003).


NASA (National Air and Space Administration)
NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board)

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