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Creative Crowdsourcing Meets Military Training

Jun. 7, 2013 - 03:45AM   |  
By MICHAEL PECK   |   Comments
Scheherazade crowdsources likely plot points to create scenarios and could be adapted for military training.
Scheherazade crowdsources likely plot points to create scenarios and could be adapted for military training. (Mark Riedl)
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You’re writing a crime novel. It’s a bank heist, see, and your protagonist Two-Gun Schmuckatelli is gonna grab a cool 50 grand in cash. But how’s the caper gonna go down? When you write the story, you’ll have Schmuckatelli arrive outside the bank, then go inside, draw his gun and....

This may be the future of military training. Not robbing banks (we hope), but the idea of combining crowdsourcing with a bit of creative writing and alternative history to create military and civilian training scenarios.

It may yet come to fruition through the work of Mark Riedl, an assistant professor of computer science at Georgia Tech and winner of DARPA’s 2011 Young Faculty Award (Riedl is now 37).

DARPA provided $300,000 for Riedl’s two-year project to develop software that uses the wisdom of the crowd to develop training scenarios.

Riedl’s system is called Scheherazade, named after the storytelling queen in “One Thousand and One Nights.” Between 40 and 100 people, recruited through’s Mechanical Turk site, are given a scenario such as shopping in a supermarket or going to a restaurant. They are asked to provide 6 to 14 short answers with no more than one noun and verb, describing step by step how the scenario should unfold.

The software collects the answers and identifies clusters where many respondents described similar events, such as driving to a restaurant, and designates these as plot points.

More importantly, Scheherazade uses the sequence of events given by respondents to determine the order of events in the final scenario. In other words, instead of a programmer having to write code to instruct the computer that a customer stands in line at McDonald’s before ordering food, the software can automatically determine this because it is the sequence most commonly used by the crowd.

“If you were to tell someone about going to a restaurant, and how you stand in line and then pay for your food, and a hundred other people also say that, then you get a strong idea that this is how things happen,” Riedl said.

But what happens when crowdsourcing generates multiple sequences? Some people might say that you stand in line before ordering at Burger King, while others would say you go to the drive-thru window. At that point, Scheherazade borrows a page from alternate history fiction and uses branching, where the scenario proceeds in various directions depending on how many differing plot points there.

Sometimes the crowd comes up with multiple ways of performing an event. In other cases, there are logical incompatibilities such as paying with cash and paying with a credit card at the same time, and these create major branching points.

For the bank robbery scenario, the software can generate more than a million stories, though most are only minor variations on the same narrative. There are just four to eight major branches in the robbery story, such as if the robber wears a mask or whether he uses a gun or hands the teller a note.

Riedl foresees training developers using Scheherazade to record the stories of soldiers back from patrol that are then used by the software to generate training scenarios. The branching story system could show the consequences of, for example, not removing your body armor when meeting a local family.

Riedl said he got the idea for Scheherazade when he looked at the military’s virtual training and concluded that while virtual training is supposed to be a low overhead approach, it hasn’t turned out that way in practice. There are a large number of potential users, but only a few overworked subject matter experts who usually are not computer programmers, he said.

“I see this work as allowing SMEs to be more efficient in rapidly creating large numbers of training scenarios,” Riedl said. This is one way that technology can help to curate the experiences of soldiers and keep lessons learned in theater from fading away over time.

Scheherazade is currently in the basic research stage. The next step is to have the crowd provide visual descriptions in their stories, enough for the software to generate a visual background. It will likely start with a simple comic-book look and perhaps progress to a 3-D game-like environment.

Riedl also sees civilian applications for his software, such as using crowdsourcing with parents of autistic children to create social skills scenarios.

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