Technologically Speaking spends some time with Syed Mohammad, lead for the Science and Technology Directorate’s Modeling and Simulation Technology Center. Host Dee Saini has a fascinating conversation about the creation and accuracy of simulations and how they can be used to train first responders in realistic scenarios, plan large events and the movements of crowds through complex venues, and many other important tasks. Syed also talks about the metaverse—how it’s already here and what you should know about it.
Run time: 27:02
Recorded on: February 28, 2023
Guest: Syed Mohammad, Modeling and Simulation Technology Center
Host: Dee Saini, Media Strategist
[00:00] Dave: This is Technologically Speaking, the official podcast for the Department of Homeland Security, Science & Technology Directorate, or S&T, as we call it. Join us as we meet the science and technology experts on the front lines, keeping America safe.
Dee: Hi. Welcome to this episode of Technologically Speaking. I'm your host, Dee Saini. Today we're talking to Dr. Syed Mohammad, lead for the Science and Technology Directorate's Modeling and Simulation Technology Center, which we'll also refer as MS-TC because we love acronyms in the federal government. Welcome, Syed.
[00:00:36] Syed: Thank you so much, Dee. It's a pleasure to be here and again, thank you for the opportunity to have this conversation.
[00:00:43] Dee: Yeah, I'm really excited to talk to you about this. What's really interesting is that the Modeling and Simulation Technology Center is behind the scenes, but so vital here at S&T. And so, what is the goal of this with models and simulations? How does it help us with our mission?
[00:01:00] Syed: Think about mathematical models for queuing, for example, for lines. how do lines move? How do people move? If we look at transportation models, we can look at models of flooding, we can look at models of how materials react to certain things, and so forth. So, in simulating and using those models to simulate, a phenomenon, we're then able to understand from a security perspective, from a security. How do certain things react to, a phenomenon, whether they're natural or human created phenomenon?
[00:01:33] Dee: That's so interesting. So it sets us up for when something really happens in the real world. We've done the modeling, the simulation, the exercises to try to get ahead of those threats or something like natural disasters. Right.
[00:01:47] Syed: Absolutely. Absolutely. And again, that, that's a wonderful segue into understanding how we can use these models near real time to understand how things are unfolding. Obviously, we want to run models ahead of time to run a bunch of what if scenarios to understand how things could unfold.
[00:02:04] Dee: So, Syed, lead us through this. I want to wrap my head around what is a model and what is a simulation?
[00:02:09] Syed: Well, that's a wonderful question Dee. So, a model, we generally differentiate between models and simulations as the model being the mathematical representation of a physical phenomenon. So, you know, you think of a ball rolling down a ramp. You think about the force models force equals mass times acceleration. And then you can begin to understand the forces of nature, mathematically and how they, act on this physical object. Now a simulation is then using that mathematical model to then compute something to then try to ascertain where at what point in time, what forces are acting on the ball, how fast is it moving, what is the, what is the total force, et cetera, et cetera. And again, I, I don't mean to get too mathematical with this, but, think of a simulation as an application of the model. An application of all the mathematics behind those models to really understand and gain information from those phenomenon. Natural disasters is a great example that you brought up Dee in, in understanding how, you know, something might happen again. You know, we hear this stuff on the news all the time, for example, right? Hurricane modeling for example. where will a hurricane travel, you know, in day one and day two and day five and so forth, uh, changing in weather patterns, changing in patterns of traffic flow. For example,
[00:03:32] Deepak: Oh, yeah. I see what you mean.
[00:03:33] Syed: We, as ordinary citizens, we use this stuff on a day-to-day basis. If you use, you know, whatever your favorite map app is on your phone, it has models of traffic built into it. It gets fed in real time and you're able to understand what will, be the best route to take on any given day. And you can, in, in some of these applications, you can backdate that to whenever, would've traveled or forward data to in the future when you want to arrive at a certain location, it uses those models that it has of traffic flows to understand what the traffic pattern in that area might be. So, it can give you an appropriate, you know, range of times to depart and at what time you would arrive. So again, models are everywhere, and simulations are absolutely everywhere.
[00:04:15] Deepak: That's fascinating.
[00:04:16] Syed: What I really like about this is I think it really helps us with the larger DHS mission, making sure we're ready, making sure we're prepared, making sure that we're simulating and modeling the different types of threats that can be on the horizon. So, we're always trying to stay one foot ahead of them.
[00:04:32] Dee: In your work, have you found that we can simulate just about anything, or are there things that we're still perhaps looking at on our wish list?
[00:04:40] Syed: Models can get quite complex quite fast and it's an age old, problem of looking at what level of fidelity of a model is appropriate.
[00:04:50] Dee: When you say fidelity of a model, what do you mean by that?
[00:04:54] Syed: So, fidelity Dee, is the accuracy or the exactness at which that model replicates the phenomenon that it is modeling for certain things, a lower fidelity might be acceptable and a quote unquote model is quote unquote good enough. when it provides an appropriate enough approximation of whatever phenomenon it is we are studying. And there are opportunities where we could model something so perfectly that, you know, we spent a lot of our time and a lot of our resources modeling a relatively basic phenomenon, whereas a relatively simple model would've done the job just fine. Understanding the fidelity of models is extremely important and knowing when a model is of significant fidelity to meet the purposes for which we're utilizing. It is extremely important as well. So, the expertise we bring to the table is knowing when a model is good enough for the work that we are employing it for.
[00:05:43] Dee: Are there any specific modeling applications that we've emanated at DHS that you can speak to? Just to provide some real world examples on what we've dealt with.
[00:05:54] Syed: Absolutely. Dee. And, and, and that's a wonderful question is, is what are some concrete examples of models that have been utilized by DHS Science and Technology Directorate that have directly benefited the safety and security of the American? If we recall an event in 2015, for example, the people visit to the US when Pope Francis visited Washington DC, Philadelphia, and New York, in 2015, as you can imagine, that drew a lot of crowds. We're talking upwards of 50, 60, 70,000 people in various parts of the country and various venues. and how do we even begin to understand how large crowds such as that would react in the event Something bad were to happen, unfortunately. We are able to utilize advanced modeling and simulation capabilities to understand crowd modeling and crowd behavior, to a point where we're able to then impact the security planning of these various events. So for the people visit in 2015, we utilize advanced crowd modeling capabilities to understand what is the optimal layout of various entry and exit ingress and egress points, of various venues. how many people we can fit into various, uh, locations safely. in the event of, natural disaster, say a storm comes through, you know, how would we shelter folks, et cetera, et cetera. We're able to model all of that and really inform the security planners, of this is what we have found in our modeling to really inform. Security planning process. So again, it's a really rewarding opportunity to then deploy some of these advanced simulation capabilities to the benefit of the American people. And as you can imagine, Dee, many, many events around the world have very large gatherings. Luckily, over the years we've seen a significant improvement globally of the management of large crowds. we look at various gatherings around the world. We look at whether it's the entertainment, whether it's religious venues, whether it's sporting events, cultural events et cetera. We are able to really see the permeation of this technology, across the world in how planning is done.
[00:08:04] Dee: Are there any certain cutting edge technologies that you and your team are currently looking at?
[00:08:09] Syed: Absolutely Dee. And this is a really exciting time to be in this field. Uh, we look at immersive visualization technologies. We look at displays that are, significantly increasing in their fidelity. We look at sound capabilities. We look at environments that we can create that are more or less realistic. Ultimately, humans are experiential learners, right? So, if you can put a human in an environment, you know, you look at our DHS workforce, you look at the, the whole range of workforces, whether it's our force responders, whether it's. law enforcement community, whether it's our, Coast Guard personnel or, the whole gamut of DHS employees in our operators. How do we put them in these experiences and train them in these experiences to really get them, thinking of how they would handle various situations And being able to then, use these advanced technologies to better our training, to better our understanding of scenarios being able to put on a fairly lightweight headset that does not interfere with your movement and really puts you in that immersive space.
[00:09:11] Dee: Yeah. Speaking of immersive visualization, why is this so important to us and are we harnessing things that are rapidly advancing like AI to move this forward?
[00:09:23] Syed: Absolutely. If we rewind the clock, you know, say 20, 30, even 40 years, our interface with the computer has drastically changed over the last several, decades? Initially, it was primarily just keyboard and reading texts on the screen. Then, as graphics evolved, we were able to look at better and better fidelity graphics. So again, humans being experiential learners, how do we minimize that interface? How do we make that interface between the human and the computer frictionless where we are not having to go through this, bottleneck of having to type commands in? How can we just have the computer recognize what it is we want it to do? And then on the receiving side of it, as the human receives information, you know, as technologies in visualization, as technologies in sound have improved as haptics technologies where you have sensory feedback, you have. things that buzz, things that can provide you that haptic, tactile feedback.
[00:10:19] Dee: You used the word haptic. Can you just define what that is for our audience?
[00:10:23] Syed: Haptic technologies are technologies that stimulate the sensors, the sense of touch specifically, in, in, in motion. So, if you have, for example, a device that buzzes when it needs to send you a signal, for example, then that draws your attention using the sense of touch, the sense of. Similarly, you know, we've seen this deployed in the automotive industry over, over the last, several, decades. if you turn your signal left and there's a car on your blind spot, there's a little buzz in your seat, or there's a buzz on your steering wheel, those are all haptic devices that are being used to give you additional sensory awareness of the environment that you are in. So, if we completely eliminate that bottleneck or minimize that bottleneck. How can we interface with the computer so fast where we are effectively in the computers?
[00:11:09] Dee: That, that's super fascinating to learn about. I want to focus on models as you're building models to put them through simulations. It's something we're creating, right? So, can we say models are perfect or are they often imperfect? And then if they are, how do we rely on them?
[00:11:27] Syed: No models are perfect. There are no perfect models. And if anyone tells you otherwise let's have a conversation. So again, it's about understanding the appropriate fidelity of models, what models are good enough, and that's really where the operator's expertise comes in as well. Our subject matter experts in DHS are ultimately our operators. The folks that are doing the business of DHS on a day-to-day basis. They provide the operator input as the subject matter experts of our mission space as they go off and conduct their missions. They understand how the world operates around them. They understand, manipulating a variable somewhere. What are the impacts of that? We're able to use all of that expertise from our operator community and pair that with the mathematical modeling, with the technical expertise that a team like Modeling and Simulation Technology Center can provide to really build models that are of sufficient fidelity and represent the reality of the situations. It would be a fool's errand to try to put a number to how accurate any specific model is. But can we have a model that is good enough? Absolutely. Depending on what the phenomenon, that it is, we're trying to model that we're trying to simulate. There's a whole detailed technical field called V and A, verification, validation and Accreditation, and there are folks in the department that are working on the V and A of various capabilities. Again, looking at verifying a model, validating a model, and then accrediting it for, use in a specific use case.
[00:12:58] Dee: Got it. So, you established the modeling and simulation community of interest. Can you talk a little bit about this?
[00:13:05] Syed: Ultimately, it's about increasing dialogue. Our subject matter experts in the Department and, you know, for the benefit of our operators. So how do we bring together, technical subject matter experts from different component partners? How do we bring together technical SMEs from different federal agencies and really have the technical dialogue in the M and S space? So we grew this M and S community of interest, the mod sim C O I, over the last several years. And today as of early 2023, we have roughly north of 200 subject matter experts from across all of the components in DHS, represented on the C O I. And it's a wonderful opportunity to expand our technical dialogue, again, us within the MS TC serving as the facilitators of the C O I are able to see. The technical dialogue from across the homeland security enterprise. As that dialogue then, spins off and they're able to learn from each other, they're able to use each other's technologies, and ultimately understand what we within the community are doing with our various problem spaces. Again, that has significant payoff and ultimately it reduces our risk and our cost of applying these technologies. As we start information sharing across the department, enabling that information, sharing, enabling that collaboration, and at the same time furthering the technical dialogue and finding new discoveries and new capabilities that we can bring to the table for the benefit of the homeland security enterprise.
[00:14:31] Dee: So, there's a word we hear a lot, and we keep hearing a lot more of it. Metaverse, what is it?
[00:14:37] Syed: Metaverse is an exciting field to be in. think of it as the complete digital picture of your individual being. It's a different way of accessing your digital footprint. It's always been around, right? So, we all have digital fingerprints, whether it's in 3D games, whether it's in, games from the eighties and nineties, how we interacted with the digital world. But think about how we accessed these, in the early 2000s, we had social media, takeoff, you know, chat functions. We have economic functions. Financial transactions, et cetera, et cetera. And we've all accessed this stuff through a keyboard and usually, you know, a desktop screen or now a laptop screen. And more recently through our, individual devices. depending on what kind of a phone you have or tablet. But how do we, again, look at all of our digital being through a frictionless interface? Can we quote unquote, be immersed in the space? I would characterize metaverse as as an interface advance. For the human system, being able to be immersed in an environment and interact with your digital footprint. Now again, I'm speaking a little abstractly here in real terms, you know, being able to interact in a 3D environment. One thing I do want to make a distinction of is, you know, we have metaverse, which is the generic terminology for accessing your digital footprint in a 3D environment versus companies. You know, we have the company named Meta, the rebranding of Facebook. Again, there's a lot of, commercial interest in this space. There's been a lot of gaming interest in this space as well. and there are a lot of companies working in the metaverse space. How do we within the Department of Homeland Security harness this capability for the advancement of our, missions would be for the advancement of, our DHS workforce and ultimately providing better safety and security for the American people. And of course, with these advancements of technologies, there are going to be some challenges, some, security challenges, some safety challenges as we evaluate how these technologies will impact the world.
[00:16:41] Dee: I'm so glad you made the distinction between what is the metaverse in terms of universal means versus just what certain companies like Facebook are doing with it and how they're rebranding themselves, and also just how do we fit in as DHS S&T with this whole gamut of things. In your opinion, what do you think personally is the coolest thing about metaverse for you?
[00:17:04] Syed: It's a lot of things, Dee and I think this is a really exciting time to be in this space. So, as we look at our social interactions online, as we look at our digital presence, being able to be in a 3D environment, being able to be literally immersed in that space and interact with things, these things will open up a whole new sets of opportunities for commercial industry, for academia, interactions with friends and family, interactions with coworkers, interactions with colleagues across, the US and across the globe.
[00:17:38] Dee: What do you think are some dangers about the metaverse? You know, every time there's some new technologies, some new sort of thing, that will take us into this new digital era. There's always a little bit of anxiety and hesitation. From your perspective, being a professional in your field, what are some things you'd like to maybe flag as red flags?
[00:18:01] Syed: Absolutely Dee. And just like with the advent of social media, there are lots and lots of pros and there are some cons as well. Similarly, within the metaverse, as you are traversing the 3D environment, as you're traversing the immersive space and your entire digital footprint being available within this environment. We could draw some parallels, with how we've seen various dangers evolve on various threats evolve in the social media space in the not so immersive visualization space. And I think we'll see some parallels in the metaverse space as well. There are the obvious dangers of, trying to, lure kids into various, discussions, various groups, et cetera, et cetera. And again, those are some obvious problems that we need to keep an eye on. And then there are the not so obvious problems, right? So, you start looking at, microeconomies forming in these spaces. So, what does that open up the world to? Are we going to see illicit trade in goods, untraceable transactions, et cetera, happening within the metaverse sphere? So, I think a lot of the similar problems apply, and I think there will be some new problems that we have to look into as well.
[00:19:06] Dee: I was just going to ask if you had any specific examples of what folks can do to keep themselves safe when visiting the metaverse?
[00:19:15] Syed: So Dee, I think some of the common sense rules would still apply, you know, maintaining your privacy, just like you would in social media, maintaining your privacy in the metaverse, knowing who you're interacting with and being able to understand how these technologies could potentially be manipulated, is extremely important. And again, as a public service announcement to parents, and again, I have two relatively young kids who are using online games and accessing metaverse like technologies through immersive visualization gear. Again, understanding what these dangers are and knowing what the limits are of these systems. So being able to monitor who kids are interacting with, being able to understand how these technical systems could be manipulated by third parties, I think is extremely important. And I would caution parents to, again, let kids be kids and explore and play at the same time, understand the dangers of these emerging technologies as well.
[00:20:11] Dee: Perfect. Got it. Syed, you were a civilian working for the Army for a little over 10 years, while you were going through that experience, I feel like in the Army a lot of soldiers go through simulation training to prepare for all kinds of scenarios. How do you think your experience working with the Army helped you in your role at S&T today?
[00:20:31] Syed: I think, it was an extremely rewarding opportunity working as a civilian for the Department of the Army, for nearly 13 years, in various positions of different responsibilities. In the Army we had a phrase that went, everything but war is simulation. It's really building up to what you hopefully never have to do. It's about understanding the mission space. It's about understanding how do you train for a mission, how do you provide the best training capabilities to our war fighters, before they go into harm's way, and really equipping them with the latest and greatest training capabilities so that they're most effective on the job?
[00:21:09] Dee: After working with the Army, how did you end up working at S&T?
[00:21:13] Syed: It's been an interesting transition. Dee, after 13 years of working for a Department of the Army, I looked across the federal space looking at, you know, where else can we apply modeling and simulation technologies? And there was an interesting opportunity here at DHS Science and Technology Directorate for a position to help establish the modeling and simulation discipline within S&T.
[00:21:33] Dee: You've authored or co-authored more than about 25 technical publications, is there one that really stands out to you that you feel like really has helped you advance your work today?
[00:21:44] Syed: I would be remiss to say that this has been a singular effort. It's really been a collaborative effort across a whole gamut of different collaborators that we work with, folks that I've worked with over my career and, really had the opportunity and the privilege to have worked with technical subject matter experts in various fields.
[00:22:03] Dee: So yeah, let's talk a little bit about your team. It takes a village to get this work out the front door. How do y'all work together as a group to carry out this mission?
[00:22:13] Syed: I've been blessed to have a wonderful team supporting us here at the Modeling and Simulation Technology Center. we have some federal staff, Mr. Leigh Yu, who also has significant Department of Defense experience, has been with us for several years now and helps us administer the Modeling and Simulation Technology Center team. And we have our industry partners and our interagency partners with various government agencies, whether it's the General Services Administration, our D o D partners and other agency partners, as well as our academic partners, through various universities around the country. So, it has been a team effort. It is absolutely a rewarding experience working with these dedicated professionals from around the country in supporting the DHS Science and Technology Directorate in establishing the Modeling and Simulation Technology Center and advancing this technology space.
[00:22:58] Dee: What did you want to be when you grew up? I obviously can't imagine it's exactly what you're doing now, but I'm curious to know if it was clothes or something completely opposite.
[00:23:09] Syed: So, growing up I did not know what modeling and simulation was. Right. you know, early on, I knew I wanted to do something, you know, on the engineering side, but it was never, hey, modeling and simulation. Who would've thought, you know, growing up I always had, affinity towards, you know, breaking things and rebuilding things. And again, a lot of credit goes to, my parents and, my family, my extended family for supporting that, imagination and the support that they all provided over, over the decades to, to get me to where I am today. Going through again, like the eighties, being able to, get involved in computers early on, being able to, you know, play games, play video games, and ultimately u utilizing computing technology for whatever it is that we do in school.
[00:23:53] Dee: One thing that I did want to ask you about, I hear you, one of your, hobbies is working on cars, including an old Jeep you can't seem to part ways with?
[00:24:02] Syed: Unfortunately, I've had to part ways with that Jeep, it got a bit too old and a bit too rusted, so it was time for that thing to go.
[00:24:10] Dee: I can tell that you approach things even like a hobby, like working on your old Jeep, in a way that you would probably approach your work because as you said earlier, almost everything we do has modeling and simulation aspects to it.
[00:24:24] Syed: Yeah. So when you enjoy what you do and work is fun, is it really work or is it just an extension of what you enjoy doing? Right. So again, the love for the field of simulation, but also the ability to be creative. You know, the best is yet to come. Looking at the future of where this stuff is headed with immersive technologies and frictionless interfaces, between the human system and the computer. This is really an exciting time to be in this space.
[00:24:52] Dee: It really is. And as you're talking about what's on the horizon and where technology is going. In your personal capacity, you're also a visiting professor of public administration at Bowie State University, which is Maryland’s oldest H B C U. I'm just curious to know how you work with your students on helping them understand the value of being our next generation of leaders in carrying out things like the DHS mission.
[00:25:20] Syed: Dee it has been a wonderful experience and a very fulfilling experience to be an educator in my private capacity. being able to interact with students, being able to teach class, being able to watch students grow professionally as well as personally has been an extremely fulfilling opportunity over the last several years, having worked at Bowie State University being able to have students understand technology. And again, a lot of these students are non technologists, right? In the field of public administration. The bulk of the folks in the field of, public administration are non technologists. So coming into this field and being able to explain technology in a way that folks can understand and apply to their day-to-day lives and to their careers ultimately when they become leaders and leaders at the national level or the state level or the local level, and some internationally, being able to then apply that knowledge for the betterment of the folks that they serve.
[00:26:18] Dee: Well, thank you. We've been talking to Dr. Syed Mohammad, lead for the Science and Technology Directorate’s Modeling and Simulation Technology Center. Thank you so much for being here. This has been a fascinating chat just picking your brain and learning about your field and the important work you're doing to advance the DHS mission. This has been Technologically Speaking the official podcast of DHS Science and Technology Directorate. To learn more about S&T and find additional information, about what you heard in this episode visit us online at SCITECH@dhs.gov. Follow us on social media at DHS SCITECH. Thanks for listening.