The Pentagon has hired a computer research team at the University of Iowa to develop digital people to save time and money in testing out new weapons of war before those weapons are built. U-of-I mechanical engineering professor Karim Abdel-Malek says it’s a thrill to use the advanced technology this way to make virtual soldiers. Professor Abdel-Malek says they “can create a human life on the computer. These are computer-generated characters that look like us, they have the same anatomy…and hopefully the same intelligence or better. They’ll be able to respond to our commands and be able to do tasks on the computer that we in the real world cannot do.” Abdel-Malek is director of the U-of-I’s Digital Humans and Virtual Reality Laboratories and the project formally called Virtual Soldier Research, or V-S-R. He says the digital humans can hop into a computer-generated tank and test it out, instead of the military spending millions to build a real prototype tank out of metal. “Imagine a tank or a weapons system that is not yet built but it’s designed on the computer. We send these people in…what we call virtual soldiers. They will test the machinery and weapons and report back whether they function…and whether they’re comfortable doing it and whether it can be done.” Abdel-Malek says it sounds almost like science fiction, but he says look to any 15-year-old who’s playing a “first-person shooter” video game. In those virtual worlds, the bad guys are programmed to “think” for themselves and they’ll shoot you if you don’t shoot them first. He says the video game characters behave with a certain level of intelligence. The military picked up on that and gave the team the mandate of including gaming technology and using it to reduce the costs of making equipment like tanks. Researchers at the U-of-I have won a two-point-five million dollar, one-year, renewable contract from the U.S. Army Tank Automotive Command Center to develop the computer-simulated humans.