Sunday, June 03, 2001

War Games

During the Gulf War, it was hard not to imagine we were all watching some sort of giant video game. Images from aerial reconnaissance mixed with CNN satellite feeds and cameras in laser guided bombs to give us an "up close and personal" feel for the conflict without ever getting our hands dirty. It may have been a war of adults, but it was largely fought by kids who perfected their skills not with rifles, but rather with joysticks, mice and keyboards.

So it shouldn't come as a surprise that a recently leaked secret Department of Defense study reports that Saddam Hussein has acquired the kind of computing power necessary to train his troops in this mode of warfare. But he didn't go to IBM or Compaq or Dell to score the latest in Pentium power. Rather, he cast his sights on the Far East, and bought the most advanced imaging device on the market today. According to the report, the mother of all dictators is now the proud owner of a trove of the mother of all videogame consoles, in the form of 4000 Sony PS2's.

If you're not a video gamer, this latest Playstation might have escaped your own radar screen. Yet, for the hardcore joystick jockey, the PS2 is a dream come true. The reason lies at the heart of the black box, in the form of a chip called the "emotion engine." This little piece of silicon has enough power to rival the big workstations used by such Hollywood heavyweights as Industrial Light and Magic, George Lucas' company that developed the effects for "Star Wars." The system is supposedly capable of cranking out some 75 million polygons a second, enabling you to achieve "Toy Story" like effects on your home TV, or more likely, zap alien invaders and save the human race before dinnertime.

The DOD is concerned because while it would be difficult, it would by no means be impossible to link these consoles together to form a sort of massively parallel supercomputer. According to experts, if the Iraqi strongman had the geeks at his disposal, he could have them reprogram and re-purpose the chips into a single device capable of executing at least 1.2 trillion instructions per second. That's the kind of computing brawn needed for simulating nuclear detonations, modeling chemical or biological interactions or mapping advanced weapon design... capabilities we'd obviously like to keep out of the hands of people like Saddam Hussein, Muammar al-Qaddafi and Al Sharpton.

When you consider that a pre-Pentium 486 chip had more power than scientists had at Los Alamos when then developed the first atomic bomb, it's not surprising that the government has very strict controls about exporting technology with advanced capabilities to potential adversaries. Just last year, in consultation with the UN Sanctions Committee, it approved the sale to Iraq of 225 PC's, but only after downgrading the Pentium 133's they contained. But the PS2's in question fall outside of that safety net, if for no other reason than they are made not in Texas or Iowa, but rather in Japan.

Would Hussein attempt this kind of computational high jump, and create a box that would enable him to perfect the mother of all weapons? Or would he simply disburse the units to various Republican Guard outfits, and use them to train his soldiers in high tech warfare? For when you get right down to it, what real difference is there between being the weapons officer on a MIG fighter having a dogfight high over the dessert with a Phantom jet, and guiding Spiderman through a three dimensional maze while combating mutant aliens and disposing of a briefcase sized nuclear fusion device? Both require advanced real time threat analysis, the mastery of complex hardware and software packages, filtering out multiple external stimuli and nerves of steel. In either case, a false step ends in your death, while success brings you not only accolades, but girls. True, in real life you actually die, an action not reversible on saying "Do Over!" But that's a subtle distinction lost on many young warriors.

Alternatively, Saddam could use the PS2's as sweeteners to further his cause around the globe. After all, he managed to chase the UN weapons inspectors out of his country after a few months of cat and mouse. All that stands in the way of a normal life in Baghdad are those pesky international trading sanctions, which effectively prevent him from acquiring western goods. Now, in addition to having lots of crude to sell, he can throw in something really desirable.

"C'mon, 10,000 barrels of Iraqi light should more than cover the cost of that order of food, medicine, jeans, mustache wax, custom made fatigues and back issues of Vanity Fair."

"I'm sorry, Saddam, but the magazines are considered contraband by the sanctions committee."

"Well, what if I throw in a PS2 console????"

"What? A PS2? Those are rarer than tickets to 'The Producers!' Just for that, I'll even throw in an extra copy of the 'Hollywood Elite' issue so you can hang up the cover!"

All are reasonable scenarios. But then again, perhaps the simplest explanation is the most likely. Saddam has a lot of houses, a lot of TV's and maybe he just likes to play NFL 2001. After all, Baghdad used to be the Paris of the Middle East. But now there are no movies to go see, no good restaurants that haven't been bombed. Faced with that kind of existence, who could blame him for whiling away the hours between conquests by playing Motocross Madness?


Marc Wollin of Bedford can play no videogame and get past the first level. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

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