PlayStation seen useful for war games in U.S. military

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force has recently revealed a supercomputer built from thousands of Sony Computer Entertainment Inc.’s PlayStation 3 game consoles, transforming a machine made to play video games into one suitable for military tasks.

The computer, known as the Condor Supercomputer, was unveiled at a ribbon-cutting ceremony held at the United States’ Air Force Research Laboratory in Rome, New York, where the machine has begun to be used for a variety of computing-intensive tasks related to high definition imagery and artificial intelligence.

The machine is the U.S. Department of Defense’s largest interactive supercomputer, capable of processing speeds 50,000 times faster than an average consumer laptop. It is powered by a combination of commercially available graphics cards and the Cell Broadband Engine, a computer chip created by Sony, Toshiba Corp. and IBM Corp., to serve as the heart of the Sony’s Play Station 3 gaming system.

While the PlayStation 3’s processor was designed to power graphically complex video games, the researchers at the AFRL suspected that it would be equally well suited for an altogether different task: analyzing and manipulating extremely large, highly detailed images of the sort that might be taken by spy planes or satellites.

“The idea was we could take some Sony PlayStations, somehow network them together and create a distributed computer system,” said Mark Barnell, one of the project’s lead engineers.

The idea resulted in the creation of a cheap and efficient supercomputer perfectly suited for carrying out complex, graphics- intensive tasks.

While a typical supercomputer is built from hundreds of energyhungry computers, each of which cost upward of $10,000, the Condor Cluster’s PlayStation 3s cost only a few hundred dollars apiece and are relatively green, requiring only a fraction of the power used by an average supercomputer.

The project began with 20 or 30 units and over the course of several years grew to its current size of over 1,700 machines.

Although linking more of the gaming machines together would theoretically make the computer even more powerful, Barnell said that the project ran into practical limitations due to lack of space and the difficulty of cooling the machines, which generate a significant amount of heat when linked together.

Although the cluster is enormously powerful, the Air Force has no plans to replace its supercomputers with additional PlayStation 3 based systems, which are not as well-suited to many high-end computing tasks as the military’s larger, more expensive machines.

The Condor Supercomputer will primarily run graphics-oriented applications, perhaps most interestingly a type of computational program that takes incomplete pictures — imagine a jigsaw puzzle with missing pieces — and makes educated guesses about how to fill in the gaps.

This functionality has the potential to be an important tool for analyzing pictures, such as satellite images of urban environments that have been distorted due to distance or inclement weather, allowing analysts to “see” information that they might otherwise miss.

The potential for PlayStation’s powerful processors to be used in military applications has long been recognized. Fears that the advanced graphics capabilities of the PlayStation 3’s precursor, the PlayStation 2, could be used in the guidance systems of precision cruise missiles led the Japanese government to place restrictions on the machine’s export.

However, Barnell is not worried that his team’s demonstration of the technology’s possibilities will spawn imitators. “There’s a lot of work that…even though the hardware’s there, you’ve got to get the software to do it,” he said, noting that building the software was a complex and difficult task.

A recent update to the PlayStation 3’s operating system has made it impossible for the machine’s newer models to run custom made software of the kind used by the Air Force, making it even more difficult to use the machines for military applications.

Although this may represent a positive development for those worried about the system’s misuse, the change has also made it difficult for the Air Force to find spare parts.

“I wish we could get more replacements,” Barnell said. “If the PlayStations begin to fail, I’m not going to be able to replace them easily if at all.”

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