iLink, a social network analytics technology from SRI International has recently been integrated into three online communities used by the military: Platoon Leader, Company Command, and the Family Readiness Group. The iLink technology improves the way the military community members share critical information across several different interest areas - from battlefield problem solving to supporting military families. Here, we take a look at the technology the military is using and how it can impact the future of social networking.

iLink Arises From A.I. Research

The iLink technology was developed as a part of the SRI-led CALO (Cognitive Agent that Learns and Organizes) program and was funded and managed under DARPA's PAL (Personalized Assistant that Learns) program. That project was designed to create cognitive software systems that can reason, learn from experience, be told what to do, explain what they are doing, reflect on their experience, and respond robustly to surprise: in other words, A.I.

iLink specifically was the part of the overall CALO project that focused on social search and message routing within social networks. It was also used to develop a system for FAQ generation within a network - they call this technology "FAQtory". With this technology implemented on a social network, FAQs are continuously generated and revised by the community using a Wikipedia-like model, as opposed to being static creations made by the site's authors. But it's not basic as a simple user-generated FAQ system - instead, iLink's FAQtory technology allows for incremental bits of information - even those that don't qualify as answers to the question. As the members contribute these bits of information, the learning system in iLink monitors how users are attempt to resolve queries and is then capable of drafting off of the social network's learning. Essentially, the technology actually enables the social network to discover and amplify its own capabilities

Other aspects of the overall iLink system involve not just incremental learning capabilities, but also the use of prior knowledge to solve problems, message-matching technologies for finding related information, algorithms for gathering data from multiple sources and compiling it together, and the ability to differentiate private information from that which is safe to share.


The Research Behind iLink's Creation

For those that helped create the iLink technology, such as the researchers at SRI's Artificial Intelligence Center, they see social networking as a much more valuable tool than, arguably, even some members of our own tech community do today. In a research paper on iLink (filled with details math nerds will eat up), they state:

"The social web provides much more than an opportunity for people to interact and exchange general information. It is a new medium for powerful models of organizing purposeful social activities. This is compellingly illustrated in the growth of open source efforts (e.g., LAMP,2 Wikipedia), which some authors [8, 14, 20, 27, 29] argue represent an alternate mode of social and economic production."

The authors of the paper state that much of the research in social networks has not formally modeled how these networks accomplish tasks. Most of the current work focuses on other areas like structural representation, analysis, and interpretation of social network data. Their work instead introduces a general approach to modeling how real-time, dynamic social networks communicate and cooperate to solve problems because an understanding of this could enhance the development of potential future applications...applications like expertise identification, FAQ generation, and smart RSS filtering.

iLink Model

iLink in the Military

Today, iLink is being used in the military communities to help recognize "who knows what" within a community, connect members to each other, and point members to valuable content, discussions, and others who share their same interests. Those connections between members and resources are made with iLink's machine-based learning to model the users and the content in order to facilitate the information sharing.

Currently, three military sites are using the technology: Platoon Leader, Company Command, and the Family Readiness Group. In Platoon Leader, current and former U.S. Army Lieutenants worldwide discuss and exchange information with each other. Company Command does the same for Army Captains while also allowing them to pose questions in order to solve problems together (crowdsourcing the military!). The Family Readiness Group helps coordinators nationwide share information and best practices with each other in order to point military families to resources they can use.

Platoon Leader

Where The Military Goes...Civilian Businesses May Follow

It was only a year ago that the military shut down access to several social networking web sites, including MySpace and YouTube, to users of the military networks. However, that shutdown was not so much a criticism of the social networking technology itself - only the public nature of those "civilian" networks. Concerned that users would share secure information like schedules or locations (for example: "Hi Mom! We're sailing into Dubai tomorrow!"), the military opted for a "better safe than sorry" policy. They also cited bandwidth concerns - sharing videos and photos can use a lot of bandwidth and not all areas of the world have much to spare.

Yet, social networking itself can be a valuable tool for businesses, and the military has realized that. In an organization, even one the size of the U.S. armed forces, connecting people to information and resources has been a challenge that I.T. has struggled for some time to achieve, and never mastered quite as well as the social networks do. In the past, businesses used impersonal, intranet-based web sites to provide files and documentation, but they miss out on one of the most critical sources of information - the knowledge that is stored in users' own minds. That knowledge that comes from both experience as well as information surrounding the undocumented processes that exist in any organization.

Now that the military is implementing more social networking technologies into their online networks - in addition to the three communities today, it's being evaluated for inclusion in several others - we'll likely see big business soon following suit. For those enterprise organizations that have been slower to pick up on Web 2.0 trends, seeing how the military uses a particular technology will be a big influence that may change their course of thinking. Social networks may just be fun for us as personal activities, but in workplace, they can be valuable tools for getting the job done...or even helping craft military strategy.

iLink's technology has been made commercially available. More information can be found at SRI International's web site.

military photo by: Randy Son of Robert; building by bourget_82