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BioWar games serious at CMU

| Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2005

A local university professor has built a scale model of Pittsburgh in her campus basement laboratory with sinister purposes in mind.

The simulated city and suburbs that Carnegie Mellon University computer science professor Kathleen Carley stores in a supercomputer are so detailed they have to be shrunk to one-third size to fit in the memory banks.

Into this mini-Pittsburgh, Carley inserts 250,000 simulated people, or "agents." Hit "start," and they get up in the morning and go to work or school, call their friends, dine at restaurants and go to the theater.

"Some of our agents that are high school students, they can cut class," Carley said.

Carley, 48, of Sewickley Heights, is director of CMU's Center for Computational Analysis of Social and Organizational Systems. The center specializes in social networks akin to "Six Degrees of Separation." How many people are you linked to, and how many links does it take to get from you to me?

Given the exquisite care Carley and her team take in constructing their imaginary city, it is somewhat jolting to find out what happens next: She flies over in a virtual crop-duster and sprays the city with simulated smallpox virus.

The soft-spoken mother of two girls, who enjoys gourmet cooking and plans to hook up a sled to her Bernese mountain dog this winter, seems miscast for the mad scientist role.

But duty calls.

Backed by millions of dollars in defense grants, teams of scientists nationwide are devising "data mining" systems that can monitor patient records as soon as they're entered into hospital computers. The goal is to spot the very first victims of a biological attack before doctors realize what is happening, and sound the alarm.

Carley's part isn't designing such a system. It's testing it.

"You don't want to run an actual attack on a city, of course. That would be unethical," Carley explained with an academic's dry wit.

So she and her team designed BioWar to model how a terrorist-released disease would spread in the first days, and what patterns to look for in the way people react.

The program can model attacks by smallpox, anthrax or five other biological agents. It also models 60 everyday illnesses, to keep the pharmacies and hospitals in BioWar's mini-Pittsburgh busy with patients and symptoms that any warning system would have to distinguish from a biological attack.

BioWar began as a project for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, whose scientists invented the Internet. Carley's team is modifying and improving BioWar in projects with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Army and Marines.

Carley has been at CMU 19 years and is married to an electrical engineering professor there. When she first got into her field, she expected to spend her days looking at organizational charts and dealing with business productivity.

Instead, Carley finds herself spending more and more time in Washington.

Her center recently analyzed known al-Qaida members who bombed the U.S. Embassy in Tanzania, partly to figure out who would have been the ideal one to catch or kill to disrupt their plot.

Last month Carley and her team began "Vista" -- a new project with the Army that will build model Mosuls and Fallujahs. This time, the agents will include American soldiers and their enemies, along with civilians, local officials and members of various political and religious factions.

The ultimate goal is to simulate how different provocations -- a car bomb, a night raid -- set the social web spinning. What does it take to spark a riot• To get rival factions to unite against occupying troops?

Carley hopes her simulation will help commanders anticipate how to keep the peace and defuse potential dangers.

"We think we can do better than most people's best guess," she said.

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