University of Iowa's Virtual Soldier Research Program proving versatile, finding new uses

IOWA CITY, Iowa (KCRG) - The University of Iowa has spent years developing what they call a "virtual soldier-" and over the last decade, their unique technology has opened doors for some unexpected projects.

"Santos," the virtual soldier created at the University of Iowa's Center for Computer-Aided Design, has proven to be versatile in its research abilities, stretching beyond the branches of the military. (Aaron Scheinblum, KCRG)

The Virtual Soldier Research Program, established through the University of Iowa's Center for Computer-Aided Design, is a human simulator. The "human," named Santos, was created to test projects for the military before they are completed.

Santos, who leaders of the program say is only nine years old, still has lots of room to grow; but as it turns out, the virtual soldier has already proven to be a high-ranked officer.

"Santos is a virtual character, just like a game," said Dr. Karim Abdel Malek, a professor at the University of Iowa who serves as the Director for the Virtual Soldier Research Program. "He lives inside a computer, but he's physics-based. That means he has bones and anatomy, and he responds to things that you would do to him."

Santos is used by different branches of the military, showing how a solider would perform specific tasks using accurate representations of a person's weight, height, and body type.

"It's taking a lot of the data that we know about humans and physics and the environment, and putting it in to help the military advance their cause," Dr. Malek said.

In recent years, Santos' ability has opened new doors for the research program, as they have received different assignments from companies to further develop their products, including research for certain tractors and motorcycles.

However, Dr. Malek and others involved in the program have realized the significant potential for the program and other forms of artificial intelligence.

"Instead of bringing people in to do focus groups, [companies] have used it for that as well," Dr. Malek said. "But it also moved into athletics, now into other areas that have to do with gaming environments, with movies, replicating life in a virtual reality environment. It has multiple applications that were not really intended."

Dr. Malek sees the need and potential for growth, as they set their sights on Santos having the ability to make decisions on its own.

"I think we took it to a certain level, but it's still missing the cognitive aspect," Dr. Malek said. "The idea of Santos thinking and responding in a very intelligent way is still not there."

The unknown future of artificial intelligence translates to excitement for Dr. Malek and the rest of the program, as they continue to research and discover new uses for their technology.

"I think it's an incredible opportunity to use tech in ways that we've never used before," Dr. Malek said.

Dr. Malek said projects like these can cost millions of dollars to develop, but the cost of these projects are not funded by tuition from the University of Iowa or state funding. The program receives contracts for each project, formulating itemized listings of how much a project will cost to develop. Entities like private companies or a branch of the military would then fund the research.

Dr. Malek said as a nonprofit, the projects create jobs and bring in talent for these projects. He said the real profit with their program comes with exposure.