Quantitative methods could play an important role in helping military commanders and political leaders make more informed decisions, according to US scientists.

University of Maryland’s laboratory for computational cultural dynamics co-director VS Subrahmanian told an AAAS-organised seminar that computers can be programmed to automatically and quickly extract relevant data from thousands of new reports on topic, and offer a probability estimate that a particular action might happen.

Preliminary research results suggest that when a group is engaged with education and propaganda activities in a major way there’s a 46%-47% chance it will carry out suicide attacks. When it is not engaged in such activities, there is an 80% chance of such attacks.

Some of the computer tools have been given to defence and intelligence agencies for testing and feedback, and some data has been supplied to field commanders in the Pakistan-Afghanistan borders, Subrahmanian says.

One of the researcher’s long-term goals is to develop a 3D ‘virtual experience environment’, a cultural and behavioural analogue of a computer war game where US decision makers can decide how best to play out the actions of multiple groups in a region.

Subrahmanian’s research has been funded by the Pentagon in an effort to better understand the potential cultural, religious and social impact of military actions in combat zones.