132. Science Fiction’s Hidden Codes

[Editor’s Note: Mad Scientist Laboratory is pleased to publish the first of a series of posts from guest blogger Lt Col David Calder, providing a cogent rationale on why science fiction is not only relevant, but essential reading for military professionals. Enjoy!]

This post belongs to a short series of articles examining science fiction’s value to the military. Following the formula common to most trilogies, where the opener focuses on world-building and introducing concepts, and primarily asks ‘why bother?’  Why should time-poor professionals read or watch science fiction when they could arguably learn more relevant lessons from political opinion pieces, cutting edge academic research, or clear-sighted analyses from the world’s numerous outstanding think-tanks? The answer lies in science fiction’s hidden codes.

Science fiction is experiencing a renaissance. During the first decade of the 21st Century, the prevailing perception of science fiction was of an outmoded genre characterised by swashbuckling space opera, corny rubber aliens, and unfavourable social stereotypes. Today could not be more different. Thanks, in part, to the growth of online streaming services, contemporary science fiction mass media is delighting new and traditional audiences alike. Science fiction literature also is selling well with unit sales doubling between 2010-2017.1 Readers continue to be immersed in and exposed to ground-breaking, complex, and beautifully rendered ideas set amongst a dizzying range of fantastic settings. Science fiction is increasingly shrugging off traditional (and unfair) perceptions of its fandom as an increasingly diverse and global authorship resonates with an ever broadening audience.

Still image from PROJECT SHELL short video — see link at end of post / Source:  Blow Studio and several professionals from the audiovisual field; Vimeo

Science fiction is not short of Evangelists at the moment. Across the Anglophone defence community, it is touted as a tradition which can complement our professional studies, expand our horizons, and help us see the world in a kinder more hopeful way. Major General Ryan, Commander of the Australian Defence College, puts science fiction front and centre in his training programmes and champions it as a medium for broadening perspectives and thinking about the character and nature of future warfare.2 In the U.S., the Army uses it’s Mad Scientist Laboratory as a lightning-rod for science fiction writers to explore ideas about how we might fight in the future and use existing (and future technologies) inventively, drive military research, and foster short-term innovation.

In today’s uncertain world, science fiction allows us to indulge both our hopes and fears. Utopian visions, like those created by H.G. Wells in The War that Will End War, address futures and societies where humanity’s petty differences and self-destructive nature are overcome. Conversely, our fears about such characteristics expose humanity’s shortcomings or highlight some indomitable aspect of the human condition through dystopian imaginings like those in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Max Brook‘s zombie masterpiece, World War Z. While science fiction is often set in the future, it is rarely about the future, instead rooted in our present and past. Kim Stanley Robinson, one of modern science fiction’s heavyweights, sees the genre as being made in history and judged by history. Others see it as inherently social: being of society; about society and a literature of ideas.3 While this is adds academic credibility to the genre, herein lies the danger in submitting blindly to its supposed prophetic power. While its apparent prescience can provide tantalisingly clear insights of the future, warn us of the consequences of political inaction, and inspire engineers to place imagined technology into our hands; its social value must also be taken into account. As social documents and images, works of science fiction carry hidden codes which extrapolate our biases and communicate the political interpretations of societies from which they are written within. A cursory look at how science fiction imagery is negatively used to further the arguments of those opposed to the development of autonomous weapons demonstrates how such biases can be perpetuated for political gain.4

It is therefore the combination of vision, context, and political interpretation which ascribes science fiction its utility to aid critical thinking. Science fiction can (and must) be read for fun and escapism – this is what draws many readers and fans to the genre and sustains its creative potential. That said, its hidden codes also allow us to question, critique, and better understand the world around us. As a form of entertainment, it also serves to introduce concepts which challenge our experience and perspectives in an accessible way. Exposure to such ideas can easily become a start point for more extensive exploration of the underlying concepts. From personal experience, a recent reading of Yoon Han Lee’s Ninefox Gambit – a mind-bending space opera set in a universe based on an alternate mathematical system – has initiated a discrete research project looking at how games can be used to manipulate adversarial actors.

Science fiction’s fantastic settings can highlight reality strangely to serve more deliberate purposes. Often when the context of an estrangement is revealed, the illusion comes crashing down to reveal spear-sharp observations on aspects of society. In turn, this can encourage audiences to move from being merely an observer to actively engage with the discourse. In Anne Charnock’s award-winning The Enclave, her visions of modern slavery in a future Britain bear a shocking resemblance to the experiences of those caught up in the 2015/16 migrant crisis. Arguably her aims are not documentary, but overtly activistic.

So what does this mean for the military reader? The first point is obvious: Clausewitz tells us militaries never operate in isolation but rather in constant tension with politics and the polity. Achieving a better, more nuanced understanding of this three-way relationship can only be a good thing. Exposing the underlying shortcomings of particular political and popular perspectives allow military commanders to more deftly undertake military activity to achieve political aims.

Where this is true for appraising one’s own society, the same argument can be made for understanding the sociocultural behaviours of those states with whom we may be in competition, confrontation, and conflict. Appreciating the alternative views and value-systems of others can potentially provide both military advantage and the understanding which might promote de-escalation or the avoidance of actual violence. China’s rich science fiction tradition, for example, might provide a vector to de-mystify the perspectival dissonance that exists between today’s global hegemon and the Middle Kingdom.

Secondly, today’s military planners and strategic thinkers cannot afford to see the world, or problems, in prima facie terms. The lack of rigorous strategic thought and post conflict planning are key themes which encapsulate the criticism of the interventionalist doctrine which has dominated US/UK foreign policy for the last two decades.5 Science fiction is clearly not a panacea for shortcomings in strategic thinking, but it does encourage critical engagement and inward reflection. In making the normal strange, it can cause us to reductively think about and objectively assess our own decision making from first principles.6

Lastly, science fiction is a powerful sandbox for exploring ideas. There is a long tradition of this being used to help understand the impact of future technology within the genre, but this can also be replicated for social and political concepts too. From Iain M. Bank’s depiction of an expanding hegemonic alliance in his Culture series or the portrayal of unipolar/multipolar power transitions in James A. Corey’s Expanse novels, science fiction is replete with narratives which mirror the power dynamics of contemporary international relations and politics more broadly.7 Such texts fuse lessons from history, the impacts of emerging technologies and social norms, and allow us to explore areas of nuance which can expose powerful insights and discourses about the nature of power, asymmetry, and sovereignty.

In future posts, we will look at science fiction’s relationship with technology and what this means for the military. Here we will see how human agency and inspiration are not predicting the future, but are in fact shaping it.

If you enjoyed this post, please also:

– Watch the Project Shell sci-fi video, courtesy of Blow Studio and Vimeo.

– Read our compendium of the best 23 stories received from our previous Mad Scientist Science Fiction Writing Contest in 2017 at Science Fiction: Visioning the Future of Warfare 2030-2050.

– Influence how the U.S. Army prepares for future combat with a near-peer competitor in 2030! You only have 5 days left to enter your insightful short story(ies) for consideration in the Mad Scientist Science Fiction Writing Contest 2019.  Click here for more information about the contest and how to send in your submissions for consideration by our       1 April 2019 deadline!

– See Mad Scientist Laboratory’s recent military science fiction posts:

Lt Col David Calder is currently studying on the UK’s Advanced and Command Staff Course and is a Chief of Defence Staff Scholar. He is also undertaking a Masters by Research in Defence Studies with King’s College London; this is exploring how science fiction can be used to change military perspectives. He is an armoured engineer and has deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan and Estonia in recent years. (Twitter @drjcalder81)

1 https://www.forbes.com/sites/adamrowe1/2018/06/19/science-fiction-and-fantasy-book-sales-have-doubled-since-2010/#18b463572edf

2 Ryan, Mick, and Nathen K Finney. “Science Fiction and the Strategist: A Reading List.” Strategy Bridge. February 6, 2017. https://thestrategybridge.org/the-bridge/2017/2/6/science-fiction-and-the-strategist-a-reading-list (accessed 01 06, 2019).

3 Parrinder, Patrick. Science Fiction. New York: Routledge, 2003.

4 Charli Carpenter, “Rethinking the Political / Science / Fiction Nexus: Global Policy Making and the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots.” Perspectives on Politics, 2016: 53-69. 58-62.

5 The Chilcott Team. The Good Operation: A handbook for those involved in operational policy and its implementation. Ministry of Defence: HMSO, 2018.

6 Roberts, Adam. Science Fiction: A New Critical Idiom. London and New York: Routledge, 2002.

7 Barry Buzan. “America in Space: The International Relations of Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica.” Millennium: Journal of International Studies 39, no. 1 (2010): 175-180.

65. “The Queue”

[Editor’s Note:  Now that another month has flown by, Mad Scientist Laboratory is pleased to present our June edition of “The Queue” – a monthly post listing the most compelling articles, books, podcasts, videos, and/or movies that the U.S. Army’s Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) Mad Scientist Initiative has come across during the past month. In this anthology, we address how each of these works either informs or challenges our understanding of the Future Operational Environment. We hope that you will add “The Queue” to your essential reading, listening, or watching each month!]


1. Collaborative Intelligence: Humans and AI are Joining Forces, by H. James Wilson and Paul R. Daugherty, Harvard Business Review, July – August 2018.


Source: OpenAI

A Team of AI Algorithms just crushed Expert Humans in a Complex Computer Game, by Will Knight, MIT Technology Review, June 25, 2018.

I know — I cheated and gave you two articles to read. These “dueling” articles demonstrate the early state of our understanding of the role of humans in decision-making. The Harvard Business Review article describes findings where human – Artificial Intelligence (AI) partnerships take advantage of the leadership, teamwork, creativity, and social skills of humans with the speed, scalability, and quantitative capabilities of AI. This is basically the idea of “centaur” chess which has been prevalent in discussions of human and AI collaboration. Conversely, the MIT Technology Review article describes the ongoing work to build AI algorithms that are incentivized to collaborate with other AI teammates. Could it be that collaboration is not a uniquely human attribute? The ongoing work on integration of AI into the workforce and in support of CEO decision-making could inform the Army’s investment strategy for AI. Julianne Gallina, one of our proclaimed Mad Scientists, described a future where everyone would have an entourage and Commanders would have access to a “Patton in the Pocket.” How the human operates on or in the loop and how Commanders make decisions at machine speed will be informed by this research. In August, the Mad Scientist team will conduct a conference focused on Learning in 2050 to further explore the ideas of human and AI teaming with intelligent tutors and mentors.

Source: Doubleday

2. Origin: A Novel, by Dan Brown, Doubleday, October 3, 2017, reviewed by Ms. Marie Murphy.

Dan Brown’s famous symbologist Robert Langdon returns to avenge the murder of his friend, tech developer and futurist Edmund Kirsch. Killed in the middle of presenting what he advertised as a life-changing discovery, Langdon teams up with Kirsch’s most faithful companion, his AI assistant Winston, in order to release Edmund’s presentation to the public. Winston is able to access Kirsch’s entire network, give real-time directions, and make decisions based on ambiguous commands — all via Kirsch’s smartphone. However, this AI system doesn’t appear to know Kirsch’s personal password, and can only enable Langdon in his mission to find it. An omnipresent and portable assistant like Winston could greatly aid future warfighters and commanders. Having this scope of knowledge on command is beneficial, but future AI will be able to not only regurgitate data, but present the Soldier with courses of action analyses and decision options based on the data. Winston was also able to mimic emotion via machine learning, which can reduce Soldier stress levels and present information in a humanistic manner. Once an AI has been attached to a Soldier for a period of time, it can learn the particular preferences and habits of that Soldier, and make basic or routine decisions and assumptions for that individual, anticipating their needs, as Winston does for Kirsch and Langdon.

Source: Getty Images adapted by CNAS

3. Technology Roulette: Managing Loss of Control as Many Militaries Pursue Technological Superiority, by Richard Danzig, Center for a New American Security, 30 May 2018.

Mad Scientist Laboratory readers are already familiar with the expression, “warfare at machine speed.” As our adversaries close the technology gap and potentially overtake us in select areas, there is clearly a “need for speed.”

“… speed matters — in two distinct dimensions. First, autonomy can increase decision speed, enabling the U.S. to act inside an adversary’s operations cycle. Secondly, ongoing rapid transition of autonomy into warfighting capabilities is vital if the U.S. is to sustain military advantage.” — Defense Science Board (DSB) Report on Autonomy, June 2016 (p. 3).

In his monograph, however, author and former Clinton Administration Secretary of the Navy Richard Danzig contends that “superiority is not synonymous with security;” citing the technological proliferation that almost inevitably follows technological innovations and the associated risks of unintended consequences resulting from the loss of control of military technologies. Contending that speed is a form of technological roulette, former Secretary Danzig proposes a control methodology of five initiatives to help mitigate the associated risks posed by disruptive technologies, and calls for increased multilateral planning with both our allies and opponents. Unfortunately, as with the doomsday scenario played out in Nevil Shute’s novel On the Beach, it is “… the little ones, the Irresponsibles…” that have propagated much of the world’s misery in the decades following the end of the Cold War. It is the specter of these Irresponsible nations, along with non-state actors and Super-Empowered Individuals, experimenting with and potentially unleashing disruptive technologies, who will not be contained by any non-proliferation protocols or controls. Indeed, neither will our near-peer adversaries, if these technologies promise to offer a revolutionary, albeit fleeting, Offset capability.

U.S. Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, Source: Alex Wong/Getty Images

4. The US made the wrong bet on radiofrequency, and now it could pay the price, by Aaron Metha, C4ISRNET, 21 Jun 2018.

This article illustrates how the Pentagon’s faith in its own technology drove the Department of Defense to trust it would maintain dominance over the electromagnetic spectrum for years to come.  That decision left the United States vulnerable to new leaps in technology made by our near-peers. GEN Paul Selva, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has concluded that the Pentagon must now keep up with near-peer nations and reestablish our dominance of electronic warfare and networking (spoiler alert – we are not!).  This is an example of a pink flamingo (a known, known), as we know our near-peers have surpassed us in technological dominance in some cases.  In looking at technological forecasts for the next decade, we must ensure that the U.S. is making the right investments in Science and Technology to keep up with our near-peers. This article demonstrates that timely and decisive policy-making will be paramount in keeping up with our adversaries in the fast changing and agile Operational Environment.


5. MIT Device Uses WiFi to ‘See’ Through Walls and Track Your Movements, by Kaleigh Rogers, MOTHERBOARD, 13 June 2018.

Researchers at MIT have discovered a way to “see” people through walls by tracking WiFi signals that bounce off of their bodies. Previously, the technology limited fidelity to “blobs” behind a wall, essentially telling you that someone was present but no indication of behavior. The breakthrough is using a trained neural network to identify the bouncing signals and compare those with the shape of the human skeleton. This is significant because it could give an added degree of specificity to first responders or fire teams clearing rooms. The ability to determine if an individual on the other side of the wall is potentially hostile and holding a weapon or a non-combatant holding a cellphone could be the difference between life and death. This also brings up questions about countermeasures. WiFi signals are seemingly everywhere and, with this technology, could prove to be a large signature emitter. Will future forces need to incorporate uniforms or materials that absorb these waves or scatter them in a way that distorts them?

Source: John T. Consoli / University of Maryland

6. People recall information better through virtual reality, says new UMD study, University of Maryland, EurekaAlert, 13 June 2018.

A study performed by the University of Maryland determined that people will recall information better when seeing it first in a 3D virtual environment, as opposed to a 2D desktop or mobile screen. The Virtual Reality (VR) system takes advantage of what’s called “spatial mnemonic encoding” which allows the brain to not only remember something visually, but assign it a place in three-dimensional space which helps with retention and recall. This technique could accelerate learning and enhance retention when we train our Soldiers and Leaders. As the VR hardware becomes smaller, lighter, and more affordable, custom mission sets, or the skills necessary to accomplish them, could be learned on-the-fly, in theater in a compressed timeline. This also allows for education to be distributed and networked globally without the need for a traditional classroom.

Source: Potomac Books

7. Strategy Strikes Back: How Star Wars Explains Modern Military Conflict, edited by Max Brooks, John Amble, ML Cavanaugh, and Jaym Gates; Foreword by GEN Stanley McChrystal, Potomac Books, May 1, 2018.

This book is fascinating for two reasons:  1) It utilizes one of the greatest science fiction series (almost a genre unto itself) in order to brilliantly illustrate some military strategy concepts and 2) It is chock full of Mad Scientists as contributors. One of the editors, John Amble, is a permanent Mad Scientist team member, while another, Max Brooks, author of World War Z, and contributor, August Cole, are officially proclaimed Mad Scientists.

The book takes a number of scenes and key battles in Star Wars and uses historical analogies to help present complex issues like civil-military command structure, counterinsurgency pitfalls, force structuring, and battlefield movement and maneuver.

One of the more interesting portions of the book is the concept of ‘droid armies vs. clone soldiers and the juxtaposition of that with the future testing of manned-unmanned teaming (MUM-T) concepts. There are parallels in how we think about what machines can and can’t do and how they think and learn.

If you read, watch, or listen to something this month that you think has the potential to inform or challenge our understanding of the Future Operational Environment, please forward it (along with a brief description of why its potential ramifications are noteworthy to the greater Mad Scientist Community of Action) to our attention at: usarmy.jble.tradoc.mbx.army-mad-scientist@mail.mil — we may select it for inclusion in our next edition of “The Queue”!