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Thursday, March 5, 2009

Warfare and network algorithms

How much does computer science owe to the military?

Well let's see...

  • The Department of Defense basically invented the internet, and with it "our entire field" to paraphrase the UW CSE department chair during one of the lectures he gave...on operating systems.

  • The Ford-Fulkerson network flow algorithm used to route traffic through nodes was invented in 1956. Not for sending oil along pipelines or routing civilian traffic--to determine if the Russian military could successfully move enough troops into neighboring countries using the roads currently in place to successfully invade them. The Cold War is responsible for so much useful science!

  • The limitations of reliable communication with TCP were known long before, based on the notion of two separate armies coordinating an attack on a territory from two fronts. If only one attacks alone, devastating losses are incurred. If both strike simultaneously, the territory is easily conquered. The only problem? Trying to agree on a time to strike, with an unreliable messenger running back and forth "routing" messages between the two on horseback or foot. What protocol would you use?

It's nice to think that most of the early computer science leaps and bounds were born out of the circle surrounding the hippie 60's XEROX PARC culture, but the truth is far more...crew cut.

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