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.
There are myriad ways to try to understand how robotics and autonomy will change warfare. The more creative, such as theater, the better. The short story remains one of my favorite ways to work through these kinds of questions, particularly with the idea that a carefully written narrative can help check our assumptions and biases about how we want things to unfold vs. how they might actually. My latest military future fiction short story is Operation CANDLEMAKER. It follows two frontline characters present when US forces employ autonomous weapons in combat for the first time. My favorite feedback about the story so far is that “the laws of physics and Murphy prevail.” High praise indeed.
After seventeen years in the US Navy, Commander Wayne McCabe got seasick for the first time when a robot had the helm.
Technically, there was no actual metal humanoid at the controls because the 130-foot Sea Hunter-class trimaran warship was driving itself, six miles south of Jazireh-ye Larak in the Strait of Hormuz. McCabe ground his teeth as he fought the urge to throw up yet again and wondered what he was really doing aboard the USS Nantucket. McCabe adjusted the five-point harness on the captain’s chair by feel and looked at the spot on the console in front of him where the ship’s chief engineer had duct taped a red “NO” plastic button from a party store. Just out of reach. Fitting.
If McCabe hadn’t been aboard, then it would have essentially been a ghost ship. The nine other Sea Hunter-class ships in his squadron were unmanned and were the only ships in the mine-laden waters, making him the sole American sailor in the entire strait. The ships ran as close to silent as possible, communicating just by laser burst. They kept watch using infrared search and tracking sensors that flew like parasails 1,000 feet above the ship. In the middle of this summer night, the Nantucket was all but invisible.
At least it was cool, if not cold, sitting in the “fridge,” as he had jokingly called the bridge because of the onboard air conditioning constantly battling to keep the floating computer within its optimum operating range. He wore a tan aviator’s flight suit and augmented-reality (AR) helmet, deepening his sense of irony over his lack of control. This deployment was going to be hard to explain to the kids; he was aboard the Nantucket, at the cutting edge of naval warfare, but he was no more than a passenger. He was technically in command of the entire squadron, yet practically, he was in charge of nothing. But you couldn’t court martial an algorithm, so the Navy brass had to keep a human “in the loop” in case things went awry with the onboard autonomous combat system.
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.”
Some notebook highlights from my first SXSW Interactive…
Seeing curiosity as a superpower: You all have a superpower — your curiosity, said Hollywood mega producer Brian Grazier.
Making virtual reality an active, not passive, technology with eye-tracking in Fove’s VR goggles.
Exploring the duality of unmanned aerial vehicle technology: Meeting digital humanitarians like Patrick Meier.
Think of design like parkour: Paola Antonelli, director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, who riffed on design theory and revealed she once had her heart set on becoming an astronaut.
Thinking the unthinkable: My panel with Peter W. Singer and Dave Anthony, Zero Day: What Will Be The Weapons Of World War Three?, brought a different perspective to the event and broached a subject a lot of people don’t regularly consider — but should in the tech and creative community. “While I sincerely hope that we never need to serious contemplate these questions, but it was a refreshing break from the standard SX content,” wrote an executive from The Royals, an ad agency. Indeed, that was one of our aims. ExtremeTech also covered the talk, noting the tradeoffs advanced nations face with their military and strategic reliance on technology.