Historical foundations for computer-based simulations
September 4, 2021
In 1996, Kenneth D. Forbus – Professor of Computer Science and Professor of Education at Northwestern University – contemplated the potential of simulations in a Guest Editorial. Kenneth Forbus focused on the possibilities of computer modeling and simulation skills. He felt that these skills could become as common as the skills of reading, writing, and interpreting text.
He proposed that in order to broaden cultural participation, computer modeling needed to achieve the status of a popular hobby. As drivers of the widespread adoption of text, Forbus suggested that simulations paralleled writing for personal purposes and reading for pleasure.
Computer-based simulations have emerged incrementally over the last 40 years as integral elements of our human activities. More specifically, simulations today are achieving mainstream execution in the arts, business, engineering, healthcare, management, the military, and the sciences. Simulations exhibit a deep historical foundation.
A colorful evolution can be illustrated through eons, centuries, and more recently within the last sixty years. Primitive simulations of military campaigns and troop movements can be traced back through Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar of Rome, Nefertari in Egypt, the Gupta Empire (600CE) of India, and Hán Xin, a military commander in China (200CE). Medieval royalty—(Kings Henry I, Henry II, and Richard I of England, along with Alfonso X of Spain, and Ivan IV of Russia)—adopted chess as an abstract strategy game to engage knights and nobility in simulating military maneuvers.
Kriegsspiel (“war play”) in various forms, had been a core element of officer training in the Prussian army before the Napoleonic Wars. Often, wargaming was dependent upon broad mapboards. Participants made extended visits to the sites of previous battles and campaigns. Additionally, officers carried out extensive reviews of historical records before simulating a war game. In the first two world wars, all senior officers learned and methodically applied wargaming on both the Allied and Axis sides.
Within a decade after WW II, the Rand Corporation in 1955 created Monopologs for the USAF Logistics Program. Although members of the US military, players simulated the role of an inventory manager within a simplified adaptation of the supply system of the USAF. By the mid-to-late 1950s, two more highly successful business simulations came on the market:
- Top Management Decision Simulation—(American Management Association)—focused on consumer goods.
- Business Management Game—(McKinsey & Company)—addressing the principles of competition for senior managers.
Dr. Forbus was onto something unique and disruptive. Simulations and the skills of creating and running computer models became increasingly common in business environments. However, simulations still haven’t achieved widespread acceptance among everyday consumers.
Simulations in consumer and business markets have diverged. Existing solutions serve the needs of their respective users – entertainment for consumers and facilitation of decision-making, problem-solving, planning, operational improvement, and risk analysis for businesses. Regardless, simulations are widely used in various commercial and non-commercial settings, largely thanks to the accessibility of computer hardware and storage.
What is simulation software used for today?
Computer simulation software allows users to speedily push the boundaries of the physical world. Players explore virtual processes that can’t easily be observed in day-to-day reality. These speed and virtual maneuverability benefits have paved the way for varied simulations in business and research environments, education and training, and entertainment.
Simulations in business and research
Simulations are widely employed in business and research. Generally, the goal is to streamline process improvement. Decision-makers are supplied with quantitative and qualitative data about the outcomes of different events. Specifically, simulations allow companies and teams to:
- Assess the efficiency of their existing workflows and operations;
- Construct quantitative “what-if” models to simulate virtual outcomes;
- Test out potential improvements to business processes without disrupting them;
- Test a range of ideas, while saving money and time associated with failures (compared to real-world experimentation and outcomes);
- Predict outcomes, such as sales volumes, the probability of machinery breaking down, or a client defaulting; and,
- Gather data to support the need for business process changes and convince key decision-makers of the necessity for improvement.
The use of simulations is industry-wide, such as in manufacturing, production, finance, software development, and engineering. For example, the Software Delivery Simulator facilitates ideation, clearer stakeholder communications, and data-driven continuous improvement. Since simulations can be applied to virtually any process, businesses need to evaluate carefully when they should be used. Depending on the situation, simulations can invoke more harm than good.
Simulations in education and training
In education, simulations allow students to improve their critical learning abilities. The learners participate more experientially with the subject matter. Educational simulations are very effective when students experience real-world processes, issues, and problems. The setting is a highly interactive, but virtual, environment. This instructional method leads to enhanced engagement in the study material. It has also been proven to increase the commitment to learn by the students.
Simulations can also be used to facilitate corporate management and staff training. For example, simulations are commonly used in project management training. Simulations are the basis of red teaming in cybersecurity. Simulations can gamify repetitive and unexciting training activities. Alternatively, simulations can upskill trainees to improve their leadership, problem-solving, decision-making, or emotional intelligence competencies.
Simulations in entertainment
The video game sector has become the nexus for simulations used in the entertainment industry. A broad range of video games simulates space travel, auto racing, city building, and even farming. Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) technologies enable the delivery of life-like audio, visual, and tactile experiences to players. Taste-based and smell-based experiences within VR/AR are still in very early development.
Entertainment-focused simulations occur in real-time. They are not as accurate as simulations in business, research, and education. The use of simple rule sets to represent the modeled environment is still prevalent in the entertainment industry. The critical success factor that reigns in this industry is the capability for players from any background to almost immediately become familiarized with the environment and execute the sim.
Accessible computational resources are the enabler
Most recently, one of the triggers for the attractiveness of simulations is the accessibility of inexpensive computational resources and storage. Cloud computing is the primary source of this popularity. Cloud computing allows anyone with an internet connection to leverage hardware resources from a range of global data centers. The cloud is employed by businesses, educational institutions, and private consumers to facilitate personal and commercial projects.
Generally, technology has also become extremely easy to use. For example, in recent years, artificial intelligence has significantly enhanced computer-aided design. This trend has permitted designers, engineers, and architects to stop wasting time on repetitive tasks and increase creative activities. Of special note here is artificial intelligence (AI), which has also become accessible. Although AI models are mathematically and computationally complex, an individual does not need to understand the intricacies of their operation to start using AI.
Off-the-shelf deep learning and machine learning libraries hide the low-level details of AI algorithm implementation from users. Individuals can craft complex models using only minimal lines of code. From a training perspective, neural nets may be trained on many consumer-grade processors (GPUs and CPUs) or in the cloud. Of course, a user needs to have some understanding of these tools to use them efficiently and effectively. Nonetheless, users don’t require specialized knowledge to commence a project.
Simulations and computer modeling seem to be increasingly accessible to the common person, rather than just intellectual elites. Perhaps the current state of simulations is not what Kenneth Forbus imagined in 1996, but its importance in today’s world is undeniable. Simulations have penetrated virtually every aspect of human activity. They are heavily used in many sectors. Computer modeling and simulations do not yet appear to be popular hobbies. However, they are present and visible in a wide range of processes.
Simulations are arguably most useful in business and research. In such a setting, simulations facilitate teams and organizations to pioneer revolutionary approaches to existing technological, scientific, and societal challenges. As a result, consumer-level hardware and software technology wouldn’t exist if not for business- and research-oriented simulation efforts.
Teams that aren’t leveraging simulations yet should seriously consider adopting them. Simulations could help to enhance the team members’ decision-making and problem-solving capabilities. Simulations could substantially improve associated business processes. Those applications might encompass advertising and marketing, engineering, IT, manufacturing, operations, project management, risk assessment, supply chain management and logistics, or talent management. Today would be a great day to begin to learn more about simulations, acquire useful computer modeling tools, and implement prototypes. Let’s take that step together.
Forbus, K. D. (1996). Why computer modeling should become a popular hobby. D-Lib Magazine, 2(10). Retrieved from: https://www.dlib.org/dlib/october96/10forbus.html
Caffrey, M. B. (2019). On wargaming: How wargames have shaped history and how they may shape the future (Vol. 43). Naval War College Press.
Wolfe, J. (1993). A history of business teaching games in English-speaking and post-socialist countries: The origination and diffusion of a management education and development technology. Simulation & Gaming, 24(4), 446-463.
Wikipedia. (July 25, 2021). History of Chess. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_chess#Origin