On the latest US Naval Institute podcast, I had a great time discussing my latest short story, AUTOMATED VALOR, with Proceedings Editor-in-Chief Bill Hamblet and Director of Outreach Ward Carroll. Set in the 2030s, the story follows British forces in an urban fight in Djibouti and asks fundamental questions about the essence of leadership in the era of artificial intelligence. The podcast also covered my motivations as a writer, how to establish a credible narrative in future worlds, my journalistic background, disruptive civilian and defense technologies, and more.
“Move, move, move!” she shouted. The closer the threat, the more her harness tightened, shielding her behind the combat couch’s blast-resistant wings. It felt as if somebody were hammering her coffin lid down while she was paralyzed but still alive. This particular fear was a well-worn track for the 24-year-old private. To suppress the panic, she angrily gloved a salvo of 30 thumb-sized diverters skyward. She quickly followed them with a pair of four-inch pulse-mortar rounds. Those would float gently down on parachutes, shorting out anything electronic within a five-meter radius until they exhausted their batteries. Her haptic suit pinched her to let her know it was overkill for the incoming threat, but it still felt right. She could answer for it when she wasn’t as worried about dying—whenever that day might come.
Russia’s next generation of strategic weaponry may be a bit more distant and a bit less fearsome than Vladimir Putin recently claimed. But his March 1 speech about titanic ballistic missiles and nuclear-powered undersea drones should spur American defense and technology communities to move faster — indeed, uncomfortably so — to embrace similarly disruptive ideas such as artificial intelligence and robotics.
The view that fiction belongs on modern military reading lists is becoming mainstream. One only need look at the titles on the reading lists put out by US Special Operations Command or the senior officers of the Navy and Marine Corps to see that it has a valued place in military professional development. And this is not limited to the Iliad and the Odyssey. Fiction, and specifically science fiction and future-war fiction, is going mainstream in Western militaries.
Among all the voices to consider in the debate over what role lethal autonomous capabilities should play in military and security systems, the very people who dream up and create science-fiction realities are the clearest in articulating the risks of robots run amok or even more devastating human-created technological disasters. The latest letter from 116 senior robotics and AI leaders cautions against the use of artificial intelligence in the defense domain, arguing humanity is at a point of no return. “We do not have long to act. Once this Pandora’s box is opened, it will be hard to close,” they wrote.
The problem is, however, that this is an era when civilian technology innovation outstrips what is conjured up in government labs. The global “AI” revolution is already underway and its impact will certainly shape future conflict. Don’t expect a Terminator reboot. Pandora’s box then may be the last one to be opened, as Facebook, Google, Baidu, Alibaba, Uber and scores of other companies have already lifted the lids on what is possible with learning machine software and robotics because there is generational society-changing and economic potential on the line. So much so that the US wants to block Chinese investment in certain cases in related technologies. As I told RealClear Defense …
August Cole, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and writer at the consulting firm Avascent, said the concerns raised by tech leaders on autonomous weapons are valid, but a ban is unrealistic. “Given the proliferation of civilian machine learning and autonomy advances in everything from cars to finance to social media, a prohibition won’t work,” he said.
Setting limits on technology ultimately would hurt the military, which depends on commercial innovations, said Cole. “What needs to develop is an international legal, moral and ethical framework. … But given the unrelenting speed of commercial breakthroughs in AI, robotics and machine learning, this may be a taller order than asking for an outright ban on autonomous weapons.”
Executive orders from the White House so far appear to be the readiest arrow in the Trump administration’s quiver for hot-button, high-stakes political issues like Middle East refugees and cutting federal red tape. Fired recklessly and without counsel or apparent expert advice they are sure to sow chaos and discord, likely by design. What will happen when the administration’s missives start to address the outstanding military and strategic questions about game-changing battlefield advances like AI and robotics? It is worth re-reading the Politico story from late December, “Killer Robots Await Trump’s Verdict” that tackled this question before the tumult of Inauguration Day and the reshuffling of the National Security Council that favors politicking over military and intelligence acumen (the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Director of National Intelligence are no longer deemed essential to meetings of top officials during a crisis but top political advisors are.) Read the Politico story.
As I said in the story, “We’re on the doorstep of what armed conflict looks like in the 21st century” and robotics and autonomy are going to play decisive roles in the air, on the ground, under the sea and in cyberspace. What that role is depends in large part on the initiatives of the Trump administration — or how they respond to other nations and groups who use these capabilities first.
During a recent podcast with Army Capt. Jake Miraldi of West Point’s Modern War Institute about future conflict, we got into a range of future-conflict questions from who will lead innovation around AI/autonomy, what will we do with bad advice from machines, will technology disruption shock the US military, and whether an algorithm might one day be writing my novels for me (and doing a better job…). Listen to the MWI podcast “Autonomy on the Battlefield.”
As the Trump administration gets down to work making its mark on the first 100 days in office, its members would be wise to remember that the next national security risks are so new they’re almost impossible to comprehend, let alone see.
This is where science fiction comes in. The right novel or short story can bring existential threats down to Earth, and make them seem solvable with the right recipe of science, heroes, and villains.
If the US slashes its involvement in NATO in the near-future, how might the alliance respond to Russian aggression in the Baltics? This short story, UNDERBELLY, explores the intersection of narrative combat, irregular warfare and great power conflict against a backdrop of NATO’s strongest nations lacking the American military might they depended on for decades.
The major general had forged his 31-year career in the British Army by sheer will, be it through SAS selection, stultifying desk jobs, Iraq, Afghanistan, a PhD in Russian literature, and much more. But just getting his fork from the plate to his mouth required more strength than he’d ever had. Two peas, nested in cold mashed potatoes, perched upon the tines. The room’s sole candle cast a long shadow across the tabletop, the mobile phone flipped screen-down next to an untouched, perfectly creased paper napkin. An inch off the plate was as far as he could get. It had been 18 hours since he’d last eaten but there was just no room in his stomach for food anymore. The profound need to prevail would sustain him until this was all over.
“Sir, you have a few more minutes,” said his aide, an American Army colonel, Shane Williams. “I can see if the kitchen can make something else, have them send it back.”
Maj. Gen. Hugh Fessenden shook his sizeable head and stood up, brushing non-existent crumbs from his jeans and thick brown sweater. He clutched his phone in his bony right hand. The totem of his anxiety. He stood a head shorter than Williams, yet the American looked at him with real admiration. The Cotswold countryside English pub, the Eagle Inn, was older than the United States. In another hundred years, this would be seen as a historic place and moment. Fessenden was the man making it happen. Williams was one of the few American uniformed military advisors still working with NATO since the United States pulled all of its land forces out of Europe two years ago. He would have a front-row seat to history, which was why he had joined the military more than 20 years ago.
Comedy is an essential tool to understand everything from global trends to local politics for multiple reasons: the comedic process requires a rigorous understanding of your subject, similar to that of an analyst. It is the product of non-linear thinking, usually using narrative and dialogue, to open minds to new ideas and to see the world around them more clearly. In his history of American comedy, The Comedians, Kliph Nesteroff says that “[t]he struggle of the funny performer has remained a symbiosis of drive, jealousy, heartbreak, and triumph.” Comedy can offer the same and sometimes better insights than policy analysis. And let’s face it, no matter who you supported in the election, we all need a laugh now more than ever.
US Pacific Command recently added Ghost Fleet to its professional development books and film list, which in the words of PACOM commander Admiral Harry Harris “is a selection of good books — novels and non-fiction — and movies that tries to reflect the breadth and depth of issues that cover what we all do at United States Pacific Command.” It’s an honor to have our novel added to professional military reading lists, particularly for the combatant command focused on the future of the Asia Pacific region. Ghost Fleet features in the list’s fiction section, alongside Asia-focused titles such as The Orphan Master’s Son and War Trash.
What Ghost Fleet can do is help open up conversations about some of the uncomfortable gaps between how the US defense establishment has viewed the future of conflict and what it might actually be like in the coming decade. In the past, such comments and conversations could be a professional liability, but today they are a strategic necessity. That is how the book’s value is described: “This novel, about future war, challenges some sacred assumptions about the composition of our armed forces, the strengths of our new systems, and even the way we fight.”