Thursday, March 13, 2008

Saddam's Last Laugh (Or, How to Control the World With PlayStation 3s)

Around Christmas 2000, some U.S. military and intelligence officials were referring to Saddam Hussein as a Grinch.

It wasn't because of Iraqi dictator's human rights record, his continued defiance in the face of U.N. sanctions, or attacks against allied aircraft in the no-fly zones. Instead, American concerns during that holiday season were focused on, oddly enough, Sony PlayStations.

U.S. intel reporting suggested that Saddam had acquired a large number of the game consoles. But the Iraqi leader didn't plan to pass out the systems as a favor to his allies, or their children. American analysts believed that Saddam's intentions were much more sinister. As World Net Daily reported at the time:

Two government agencies are investigating the purchases because the PlayStations can be bundled together into a sort of crude super-computer and used for a variety of military applications, say intelligence sources.

"Most Americans don't realize that each PlayStation unit contains a CPU -- every bit as powerful as the processor found in most desktop and laptop computers," said one military intelligence officer who declined to be identified. "Beyond that, the graphics capabilities of a PlayStation are staggering -- five times more powerful than that of a typical graphics workstation, and roughly 15 times more powerful than the graphics cards found in most PCs."

A single PlayStation can generate up to 75 million polygons per second. Polygons, as noted in the DIA report, are the basic units used to generate the surface of 3-D models -- extremely useful in military design and modeling applications.

"When I first saw this report, I was highly skeptical," said an intelligence source. "So, I did some checking with computer experts I know within the Department of Defense. From what they tell me, bundling these video game units is very feasible."


"Applications for this system are potentially frightening," said an intelligence source. "One expert I spoke with estimated that an integrated bundle of 12-15 PlayStations could provide enough computer power to control an Iraqi unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV -- a pilotless aircraft."

The assessment was met with skepticism by video gamers, other intel analysts and computer experts. And, when allied troops invaded Iraq three years later, they found no evidence of weapons systems designed or guided by "bundled" PlayStation 2s. If Saddam had acquired up to 4,000 game consoles--as the initial report suggested--those units were used for other purposes, say a gift for the children of political allies.

Eight years later, we've discovered an item that suggests there might have been something to that original report from Iraq. Last month, the Air Force announced plans to buy up to 300 PlayStation 3s, for a project at the Rome Research Lab in New York. According to the service, the game console processors will be bundled together. Their combine computing power will be used to design more advanced simulators.

While the PS 3s will carry a price tag of up to $120,000, the bundling option is said to be cheaper than "alternate" processors which could cost up to five times as much. But that seems to be something of a red herring. Spending $600,000 on other processor represents a veritable drop in the USAF's multi-billion IT budget.

We wonder if the "design" project isn't something of a ruse. The experiment's real purpose may be aimed at proving the viability of the original Iraqi "plan." With the computing power available in game consoles--and the bundling option--adversaries could develop a cheap, high-speed computer for military applications. Better yet, game systems aren't on export control lists, and they can be purchased in large quantities.

Maybe Saddam and his engineers were on the right track back in 2000. Or maybe the Iraqi dictator is getting the last laugh on us, from a very warm spot in the inferno.


Dave Rickey said...

In fact, PS3's have already been used as a cheap way to build a supercomputer. And they're far under-estimating the comparative costs, for certain kinds of physics simulations PS3's are orders of magnitude more cost-efficient than traditional CPU's.

owr084 said...

Saddam was supposedly using Playstation 2s, not the newer Playstation 3s. Clustering videogame consoles is not a big deal. It is quite easy to do with the original Xboxes. Just google "cluster computing" and any one of the following: PS2, PS3 or Xbox.

Geekster said...

I believe that playstations are currently being used in autonomous ground vehicles such as the one recently displayed.

JP said...

Linux folks had a Cray competitive cluster of PS2s about the time Saddam was caught with his shipment. The open source programing was freely available and downloadable!
The hack was also done to the Xbox and if all one wanted was a cheap computer it was more powerful than a "real" low dollar computer. The Graphics were not as powerful, but Saddam wasn't looking to host Doom Tourneys. He had enough power in a cluster (if finished) to not only control a UAV, but run several. He'd have had close to what is claimed for the Crays No Such Agency had at the same time.

Geekster said...

Sorry, it was an xbox that is the controller for the "Crusher" DARPA project, not a playstation.