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Gaming for Clarity Recognizes Intelligence Biases

Leveraging the idea of gamification - the use of game mechanics to facilitate problem solving

A recent press report quoted unnamed US intelligence sources saying Russia had no intention of invading the Ukraine. The appraisal became the subject of considerable debate when Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his nation's military into Ukraine's Crimea region. Follow-on media reports said strategic assessments had been made by US intelligence and defense authorities that indicated there was a very good chance that Putin would do just that in response to Ukraine's internal uprising that threatened ties with Russia.

Whatever the case may be and whatever the actual facts were that were used to inform senior policymakers at the time, the failure of the initial media reports -- which is generally always wrong -- raises a valid question about the role of biases in analyzing, assessing and predicting likely geopolitical outcomes.

Unrecognized biases can wreak havoc and lead to a seemingly endless cycle of misinformed, ill advised and poorly structured assessments and conclusions. Whatever the reason for the failure of such recent analysis -- be it misreporting, situational fluidity, geopolitical perception management or what have you -- biases in critical thinking and decision-making abound.

There is a plethora of historical examples that fall into this category. "Failure to detect and mitigate bias is widely considered to be the cause of many intelligence failures in the past," explained Professor Kristan J. Wheaton, an associate professor of intelligence studies at Mercyhurst University and a retired Foreign Area Officer with the US Army.

"For example, the "Jeremiah Report" blamed the US's failure to predict Indian nuclear tests in the 90's squarely on the bias of mirror-imaging (thinking that the other side will see the facts and interpret them the same way you do)."

Following the Intelligence Community's failure to have provided warning of  India's nuclear testing, the Director of Central Intelligence at the time appointed a panel of outside experts, chaired by Admiral David Jeremiah, a former vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to provide a list of specific recommendations regarding analytic assumptions, collection management and tasking, manning and training and organizing and integrating the Intelligence Community.

"Cognitive biases (as distinct from prejudices) impact anyone who makes decisions," Wheaton said. "Obviously, the more important the decisions, the more impact which is why you typically see de-biasing training in places like law and medical schools, in the military and within the intelligence community."

Wheaton has spent years focusing his research on countering innate biases. And as he noted, "All my research over the last 5 years has been focused on teaching intelligence analysis with games."

IARPA inspired gamification
Leveraging the idea of gamification -- the use of game mechanics to facilitate problem solving -- has been widely popular for years and continues to attract attention for its real-world application. Gartner, a leading information technology research and advisory company, projected that by 2015 "more than 50 percent of organizations that manage innovation processes will gamify those processes."

Wheaton's interest in finding a symbiosis between gamification and intelligence studies research led him to focus his efforts on discovering a validation point that leverages game mechanics to support effective intelligence analysis. The launch of the Sirius Program, sponsored by the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA), a US research agency under the Director of National Intelligence, bolstered Wheaton's existing research and further motivated him to pursue such efforts and see them to fruition.

"IARPA's Sirius program really sparked me back when it was first announced," he explained. "I was very excited about the possibility of designing a game that taught something so critical to intelligence success. As someone who has been designing games for years, it looked like something right up my alley."

From tabletop to mobile
Initially, Wheaton created a tabletop game in an effort to educate both public and private sector individuals to spot biases and identify techniques to mitigate them. The Mind's Lie was the initial product he came up with. It was "designed to implicitly teach you and the other players to recognize confirmation bias, anchoring bias, stereotyping and/or representativeness bias, projection or mirror imaging bias, bias blind spot or fundamental attribution error in more or less realistic situations," Wheaton said.

The positive feedback about the tabletop game prompted Wheaton to pursue the project further and create an online mobile version.

To make an online mobile application available, he teamed up with Pennsylvania State University. "Professor Wheaton worked with us through Penn State Behrend's senior project program," said Dr. Matthew White, a visiting lecturer that teaches game development at Penn State who is slated to become an Assistant Professor at the university this summer.

"Students and a faculty adviser are paired with industrial partners, in this case Dr. Wheaton, to accomplish a technical goal," White said. "While this isn't normally game-related (e.g., it's usually engineering in some way), the project course has expanded to include our new game program."

The newly unveiled mobile application designed by researchers from Mercyhurst and Penn State seeks to capture the attention of intelligence analysts and decision-makers by employing a design similar to Zynga's widely popular "Words With Friends," a multiplayer crossword puzzle-style mobile app game that is similar to Scrabble, where real people compete against one another in near real-time.

Creating a tool that aids in teaching intelligence analysts, doctors, lawyers and members of the military to recognize a series of innate biases that complicate, cloud and undermine objective analysis is certainly a challenge of consequence. Will such an application be a success for its intended niche audience?

The jury is still out, but Wheaton and his fellow researchers remain optimistic that their approach will ultimately be successful.

"My hope is that enough people pick it up, play it and give us feedback so that we can improve it," Wheaton said. "Ideally, I would see someone or some organization who liked it so much that they would be willing to fund its continued development and deployment."

Together, the team has gone from concept to product in a little more than a year. The Android version of The Mind's Lie went live for beta testing on March 4. It is available for free at the Google App Store.

http://www.hstoday.us/industry-news/general/single-article/gaming-for-cl...

More Stories By Timothy W. Coleman

Editor-at-Large for Homeland Security Today. http://www.hstoday.us/