In January of this year, I was contacted by a company called Metron Scientific Solutions. They asked if I’d like to join them in a project to use category theory to design and evaluate complex, adaptive systems of systems.
What’s a ‘system of systems’?
It’s a system made of many disparate parts, each of which is a complex system in its own right. The biosphere is a system of systems. But so far, people usually use this buzzword for large human-engineered systems where the different components are made by different organizations, perhaps over a long period of time, with changing and/or incompatible standards. This makes it impossible to fine-tune everything in a top-down way and have everything fit together seamlessly.
So, systems of systems are inherently messy. And yet we need them.
Metron was applying for a grant from DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which funds a lot of cutting-edge research for the US military. It may seem surprising that DARPA is explicitly interested in using category theory to study systems of systems. But it actually shouldn’t be surprising: their mission is to try many things and find a few that work. They are willing to take risks.
Metron was applying for a grant under a DARPA program run by John S. Paschkewitz, who is interested in
new paradigms and foundational approaches for the design of complex systems and system-of-systems (SoS) architectures.
This program is called CASCADE, short for Complex Adaptive System Composition and Design Environment. Here’s the idea:
Complex interconnected systems are increasingly becoming part of everyday life in both military and civilian environments. In the military domain, air-dominance system-of-systems concepts, such as those being developed under DARPA’s SoSITE effort, envision manned and unmanned aircraft linked by networks that seamlessly share data and resources in real time. In civilian settings such as urban “smart cities”, critical infrastructure systems—water, power, transportation, communications and cyber—are similarly integrated within complex networks. Dynamic systems such as these promise capabilities that are greater than the mere sum of their parts, as well as enhanced resilience when challenged by adversaries or natural disasters. But they are difficult to model and cannot be systematically designed using today’s tools, which are simply not up to the task of assessing and predicting the complex interactions among system structures and behaviors that constantly change across time and space.
To overcome this challenge, DARPA has announced the Complex Adaptive System Composition and Design Environment (CASCADE) program. The goal of CASCADE is to advance and exploit novel mathematical techniques able to provide a deeper understanding of system component interactions and a unified view of system behaviors. The program also aims to develop a formal language for composing and designing complex adaptive systems. A special notice announcing a Proposers Day on Dec. 9, 2015, was released today on FedBizOpps here: http://go.usa.gov/cT7uR.
“CASCADE aims to fundamentally change how we design systems for real-time resilient response within dynamic, unexpected environments,” said John Paschkewitz, DARPA program manager. “Existing modeling and design tools invoke static ‘playbook’ concepts that don’t adequately represent the complexity of, say, an airborne system of systems with its constantly changing variables, such as enemy jamming, bad weather, or loss of one or more aircraft. As another example, this program could inform the design of future forward-deployed military surgical capabilities by making sure the functions, structures, behaviors and constraints of the medical system—such as surgeons, helicopters, communication networks, transportation, time, and blood supply—are accurately modeled and understood.”
CASCADE could also help the Department of Defense fulfill its role of providing humanitarian assistance in response to a devastating earthquake, hurricane or other catastrophe, by developing comprehensive response models that account for the many components and interactions inherent in such missions, whether in urban or austere environs.
“We need new design and representation tools to ensure resilience of buildings, electricity, drinking water supply, healthcare, roads and sanitation when disaster strikes,” Paschkewitz said. “CASCADE could help develop models that would provide civil authorities, first responders and assisting military commanders with the sequence and timing of critical actions they need to take for saving lives and restoring critical infrastructure. In the stress following a major disaster, models that could do that would be invaluable.”
The CASCADE program seeks expertise in the following areas:
• Applied mathematics, especially in category theory, algebraic geometry and topology, and sheaf theory
• Operations research, control theory and planning, especially in stochastic and non-linear control
• Modeling and applications responsive to challenges in battlefield medicine logistics and platforms, adaptive logistics, reliability, and maintenance
• Search and rescue platforms and modeling
• Adaptive and resilient urban infrastructure
Metron already designs systems of systems used in Coast Guard search and rescue missions. Their grant proposal was to use category theory and operads to do this better. They needed an academic mathematician as part of their team: that was one of the program’s requirements. So they asked if I was interested.
I had mixed feelings.
On the one hand, I come from a line of peaceniks including Joan Baez, Mimi Fariña, their father the physicist Albert Baez, and my parents. I don’t like how the US government puts so much energy into fighting wars rather than solving our economic, social and environmental problems. It’s interesting that ‘systems of systems engineering’, as a field, is so heavily dominated by the US military. It’s an important subject that could be useful in many ways. We need it for better energy grids, better adaptation to climate change, and so on. I dream of using it to develop ‘ecotechnology’: technology that works with nature instead of trying to battle it and defeat it. But it seems the US doesn’t have the money, or the risk-taking spirit, to fund applications of category theory to those subjects.
On the other hand, I was attracted by the prospect of using category theory to design complex adaptive systems—and using it not just to tackle foundational issues, but also concrete challenges. I liked the idea of working with a team of people who are more practical than me. In this project, a big part of my job would be to write and publish papers: that’s something I can do. But Metron had other people who would try to create prototypes of software for helping the Coast Guard design search and rescue missions.
So I was torn.
In fact, because of my qualms, I’d already turned down an offer from another company that was writing a proposal for the CASCADE program. But the Metron project seemed slightly more attractive—I’m not sure why, perhaps because it was described to me in a more concrete way. And unlike that other company, Metron has a large existing body of software for evaluating complex systems, which should help me focus my theoretical ideas. The interaction between theory and practice can make theory a lot more interesting.
Something tipped the scales and I said yes. We applied for the grant, and we got it.
And so, an interesting adventure began. It will last for 3 years, and I’ll say more about it soon.