Operation CANDLEMAKER

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.

Read the full story at the Art of the Future Project website.

Staging The Future

It was a packed house, just not the usual crowd for a think tank event.

But last week in London, an unusual evening of theater and discussion about artificial intelligence and the future of conflict brought together more than 200 people, including actors and art students, military and civilian government officials, tech and defense industry, among others.

The event, “Staging the Future: Artificial Intelligence and Conflict,” was put on by the Atlantic Council and the Royal United Services Institute, in partnership with Central St. Martins and the Platform Theatre. There are myriad efforts underway currently to better understand, and prepare for, a future in which computers and other machines can operate with human-like reasoned judgments and individual initiative but many of these reports or conferences overlook the crucial questions of the human element. As theater is inherently an analog – and live — activity, it focuses the audience’s attention on the actors on stage.

Read more at The Art of the Future Project website.

Between Fact And Fiction

Peruse the shelves at any bookstore and one section sure to be well stocked is for books on writing. There are notable titles, from rule books such as Elements of Style to the inspirational and craft-oriented Naming the World, that are well suited to equipping writers with the tools to put their words on a page as effectively as possible.

There are other types of writing books, though, that pull back the curtain of what it is like to write professionally. Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is one that stands out, and so is Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing endure as being entertaining and useful.

Add to the list two more worthy reads. These recent autobiographical books hew to the “show, don’t tell” adage and reveal the stories behind their authors’ lives: Steven Pressfield’s The Knowledge and John le Carré’s The Pigeon Tunnel. While these books are rooted in the past, their value to future-minded writers is in understanding the importance of personal stories in creating inspiring characters and credible settings perched on the knife edge between fact and fiction. This is perhaps even more important in tales that can be easily overrun with technology and fantasy.

Read more at the Art of the Future Project website.

After The War

The Atlantic Council’s Art of Future Warfare project has so far used short stories to explore how wars start, how they might be fought in space and what a conflict among the great powers could look like. But what comes next when the fighting ceases? For combatants and warzone civilians alike, conflict during the next decades will have elements that would be familiar to Greek hoplites, like the essence of tactical deception or being proficient in close-quarters combat. Yet there will be elements that from today’s perspective will stretch the boundaries of official imagination in preparing for how closer man-machine interface, latent cyber weapons and bio-enhancement to soldiers and weaponry alike will change war.

In partnership with veterans writing group Words After War, the Art of Future Warfare project seeks unpublished short stories exploring post-conflict issues from a future war in the 2040s for its latest creative challenge. The winner will receive a $500 honorarium.

Enter at ArtofFutureWarfare.org.

Superpowers, Parkour And Pupil Power

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.

 

Breaking Through The Fog

Nobody else is awake in the house. Why would they be?

I’d say this is my time, but it’s really not. The hours between five and seven in the morning belong to others: The fictional Marines, soldiers, sailors and security contractors of the future whom I struggle to give the lives they deserve; the people counting on my professional writing in the “real world” of defense and security analysis; my co-writer on the biggest professional gambit I’ve ever undertaken: a novel about the next world war.

Before I am fully awake, the keyboard keys rattle and shake in their metal bed beneath my cold fingertips. Whether those sentences that come out in three-to-four-second bursts are any good or not is less important. The most important part of this moment is the act of sitting down in the dark to get to work. Each character, word and paragraph is an incremental victory in a larger set-piece struggle that occurs every time I open my laptop before dawn.

If it’s a good day, there are creative breakthroughs. Big ones. It’s predictable, because for me the earliest hours of the day are almost always the most creative. Those breakthroughs come from the routine and practiced approach that respects an artistic tradition of early-morning productivity.

Read more at War On The Rocks.

What Will Be The Weapons Of World War III?

I’ve been to auto shows in Detroit and air shows in Paris, but SXSW Interactive in Austin is a first. I’ll be heading there this weekend to talk Saturday afternoon about the fiction and non-fiction work I’ve been doing around the future of warfare. The talk will draw heavily from my work with Peter W. Singer on Ghost Fleet, our novel that comes out in June.  We’ll focus on technology, but also how to go about creating alternative futures that have a foundation rooted in today’s realities. The conference is a great chance to talk to leading innovators, designers and thinkers about the future of defense and security — and the role the latest inventions and creations will play.

Here’s the official blurb on our event Saturday at the Austin Convention Center:
America’s military fought insurgents and terrorists for more than a decade yet tensions between the world’s great powers now make an unthinkable global conflict a real consideration. Take a tour of the high- and low-tech weapons of the next world war with renowned futurist and strategist Peter W. Singer and former Wall Street Journal reporter and defense analyst August Cole. Moderated by Dave Anthony, the acclaimed director of the best-selling Call of Duty games, the discussion will explore the wartime role of Silicon Valley startups, Americans as 21st Century insurgents, how a junkyard hot-rod mindset can save the Air Force and Navy from defeat, the art of zero-gravity combat and the critical role cyber warriors in and out of uniform will play in the next world war’s decisive battles. With unique perspectives informed by the highest levels of defense policy, journalism and entertainment, the panel will go inside the battlefield tech of tomorrow.

Hard enough

We measure ourselves by milestones, but the daily victories over ourselves need to be celebrated too. Little things take big efforts in the pre-dawn morning, whether it’s writing the day’s first words or riding so hard that your lungs have no choice but to invite the freezing air in. This is the work that matters most. It is the foundation of our triumph.

Read my latest piece “The Hardest Hour” at cycling Web site Red Kite Prayer.

Eyes in the boat

You pierce the wall of howling and shouting like passing through a waterfall’s icy rush. Then a moment of cave-like calm is punctuated by the brutal slam of oarlocks. The upriver side of Eliot Bridge appears, a vague mix of flesh, brick and bright light. Again the cheering competes with the pounding of the blood in your ears as you push the thought of a last stroke back with each drive of your legs.

Less than 1000 meters to the finish line.

Less than 100 strokes to go.

By the time a rower on the Head of the Charles racecourse reaches Eliot Bridge their boat has made it through five other bridges and the course’s most difficult turns. They may have pushed past at least one rival crew in a burst of burning lungs and fleeting glory. If not, they will have fended off, or tried to thwart, what feels like a personal attack by another boat trying to pass.

A long rowing race has many difficulties and some of the toughest don’t even involve other boats. The hardest battle each rower faces on a course as storied as the Head of the Charles is an internal one: keeping your eyes in the boat. There is so much to see on that one day, so much training to draw upon and so much to distract yourself from the pain at hand that the self-denial and the control is a perfect metaphor for the focus it takes to do well in the sport.

Heaving chest, with a steadying hand on the gunwale and another curled in pain around the oar handle just a few boat lengths past the finish line, you realize that the discipline it takes to keep from looking out of the boat in a big race is also just like the struggle to focus when you sit down to write. Continue reading

Turning the pages

 

The first draft of my first novel “Without Glory” is done.

What’s in the book? Distilling a story, one you’ve dreamed about writing for a while, down to one sentence is hard. This is what I’m using in my pitch…

“Two brothers, a military contractor and a Navy SEAL, must overcome a rift over their wartime roles after an ambush on the Iranian coast threatens to separate them forever.”

The horseshoes in this photo make me think of the luck I’m trying to make. It’s an image taken near Auburn, Calif., the home town of my protagonists.

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