DOD Awards U-M $6.5M to use Game Theory to Study COVID-19 Safe Behaviors

The Department of Defense has awarded the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor $6.5 million to study how officials at different levels of government can work together to maximize COVID-19 safe behavior. The study will be conducted through a multiscale game theory project.
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social distancing
U-M researchers are using game theory to determine how to maximize COVID-19 safe behavior. // Stock photo

The Department of Defense has awarded the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor $6.5 million to study how officials at different levels of government can work together to maximize COVID-19 safe behavior. The study will be conducted through a multiscale game theory project.

“The global pandemic is the most salient threat we face at the moment,” says Purush Iyer, program manager at the Army Research Office, an element of the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command’s Army Research Laboratory. “While the U.S. Army’s interest in network games includes understanding the impact of the adversarial groups in a host population, electronic warfare, and distributed weapon systems, we fully support exploring the impact of measures to control the spread of disease.”

The U-M team is exploring how to model compliance or lack thereof regarding COVID-19 orders and recommendations in their game-theory framework. The protective behaviors include not going out, wearing a mask when going out, and handwashing and using hand sanitizer when returning.

The factors that may influence compliance often include the prevalence of COVID-19 in the local community, a person’s vulnerability or proximity to vulnerable individuals, and general awareness. They may also be affected by the timing of the order and even the words and phrases chosen to give justification and restrictions. This aspect of the analysis will allow the team to investigate communitywide behavior as a result of high-level policies.

Most of the literature in game theory, a branch of mathematics that analyzes strategies for dealing with competitive situations, examines individual behavior, but Mingyan Liu, leader of the project and the Peter and Evelyn Fuss Chair of Electrical and Computer Engineering at U-M, and her colleagues are exploring what happens when decisions are made at multiple scales.

Liu says behavior patterns are relevant during the COVID-19 pandemic, when decisions are made by individuals and local, state, and national governments. People can either act for the common good or on their individual interests.

She plans to connect behaviors identified from such information with COVID-19 case data to discover which restrictions and recommendations are most effective.

“We’re also interested in understanding what additional mechanisms or policies could be introduced to make the overall system more efficient. For instance, enabling more collaboration among communities rather than competition,” Liu says, citing the way states are fighting each other for a federal supply of medical equipment even as some come together on a plan to begin reopening the economy.

For now, the team will model strategic decisions associated with social distancing at the individual and community levels, but they have plans to include economic concerns as well. For example, the study will look at how behaviors may play an important economic role in manufacturing and distribution, which could help head off shortages.

The project is titled “Multi-Scale Network Games of Collusion and Competition.” Liu presented the work at a recent “Call to Arms” virtual conference, held by the National Science Foundation’s Networking Technology Systems group.

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