NEWS

DARPA to Train Troops in Social Interaction

By Laura Spadanuta

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's (DARPA) Information Innovation Office is launching a program to teach warfighters how to better interact in unfamiliar social situations.

The program is known as the Strategic Social Interaction Modules (SSIM), according to the DARPA announcement:

The SSIM program will provide warfighters with the basic human dynamics skills they need to enter into any social encounter regardless of the culture, group, or situation. SSIM will identify these basic skills and craft training approaches that enable warfighters to develop and apply them. After such training, soldiers will be able to approach and engage strangers in unfamiliar social environments, orient to unfamiliar patterns of behavior, recover from social mistakes, deescalate conflict, rigorously practice transition in and out of force situations, and engage in the process of discovering and adapting to previously unknown "rules of the game" encountered in social engagements.

The theory behind the program is that troops are not just focused on combat anymore; they must also be "street-level" diplomats, peace keepers, police officers, and aid workers.

Wired reports on the announcement and compares it to the recent efforts of the oft-maligned Human Terrain System program that sent social scientists into war zones:

It’s been years since the military cognoscenti realized that the key to unconventional conflicts like Iraq and Afghanistan is grokking their social and cultural networks. But gaining that understanding hasn’t been easy. The Army’s flagship project for mastering this material — the Human Terrain System — stumbled badly in its early years. Hundreds of people hired for the program were unqualified, according to HTS’ former chief.

But while HTS relies on a relatively small number of social scientists to take Afghanistan and Iraq’s pulse, hundreds of thousands of average infantrymen patrol the battlefields, often with little or no experience interacting with a foreign culture. For many troops, going to war is their first trip outside the country.

The SSIM program will begin with extensive research into which skills are necessary for social engagements. After the skills are identified, SSIM will develop a computer-video training simulation for social interactions and engagement training.


♦ Photo of human terrain system mission by Spc. Jason A Young/U.S. Army

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