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.

131. Omega

[Editor’s Note:  Story Telling is a powerful tool that allows us to envision how innovative and potentially disruptive technologies could be employed and operationalized in the Future Operational Environment. In today’s guest blog post, proclaimed Mad Scientist Mr. August Cole and Mr. Amir Husain use story telling to effectively:

  • Describe what the future might look like if our adversaries out-innovate us using Artificial Intelligence and cheap robotics;
  • Address how the U.S. might miss a strategic breakthrough due to backward-looking analytical mindsets; and
  • Imagine an unconventional Allied response in Europe to an emboldened near-peer conflict.

Enjoy reading how the NATO Alliance could react to Omega — “a Russian autonomous joint force in a … ready-to-deploy box… [with an] area-denial bubble projected by their new S-600s extend[ing] all the way to the exo-sphere, … cover[ing] the entirety of the ground, sea and cyber domains” — on the cusp of a fictional not-so-distant future near-peer conflict!]

Omega

22 KILOMETERS NORTH OF KYIV / UKRAINE

“Incoming!” shouted Piotr Nowak, a master sergeant in Poland’s Jednostka Wojskowa Komandosów special operations unit. Dropping to the ground, he clawed aside a veil of brittle green moss to wedge himself into a gap beneath a downed tree. He hoped the five other members of his military advisory team, crouched around the fist-shaped rock formation behind him, heard his shouts. To further reinforce Ukraine’s armed forces against increasingly brazen Russian military support for separatists in the eastern part of the country, Poland’s government had been quietly supplying military trainers. A pro-Russian military coup in Belarus two weeks earlier only served to raise tensions in the region – and the stakes for the JWK on the ground.

An instant later incoming Russian Grad rocket artillery announced itself with a shrill shriek. Then a rapid succession of sharp explosive pops as the dozen rockets burst overhead. Nowak quickly realized these weren’t ordinary fires.

Russian 9a52-4 MLRS conducting a fire mission / Source: The National Interest

There was no spray of airburst shrapnel or the lung-busting concussion of a thermobaric munition. Instead, it sounded like summer fireworks – the explosive separation of the 122mm rocket artillery shell’s casing. Once split open, each weapon’s payload deployed an air brake to slow its approach.

During that momentary silence, Nowak edged out slightly from under the log to look up at the sky. He saw the drifting circular payload extend four arms and then, suddenly, it came to life as it sprang free of its parachute harness. With a whine from its electric motors, the quadcopter darted out of sight.

That sound built and built over the next minute as eleven more of these Russian autonomous drones darted menacingly in a loose formation through the forest above the Polish special operations commandos. Nowak cursed the low-profile nature of their mission: The Polish soldiers had not yet received the latest compact American counter-UAS electronic-warfare systems that could actually fit in their civilian Skoda Kodiaq SUVs.

Nowak held his airplane-mode mobile phone out from under the log to film the drones, using his arm like a selfie-stick. Nowak needed to report in what he was seeing – this was proof Russian forces had turned their new AI battle management system online inside Ukraine. But he also knew that doing so would be a death sentence, whether he texted the video on the country’s abominably slow mobile networks or used his secure NATO comms. These Russian drones could detect either type of transmission in an instant. Once the drones cued to his transmission he would be targeted either by their own onboard anti-personnel munitions or a follow-on strike by conventional artillery.

This was no mere variation on the practice of using Leer-3 drones  for electronic warfare and to spot for Russian artillery. It marked the first-ever deployment of an entirely new Russian AI battle system complex, Omega. Nowak had only heard about the Russians firing entire drone swarms from inexpensive Grad rocket-artillery rounds once before in Syria while deployed with a US task force. But they had never done so in Ukraine, at least not that he knew about.  Most observers chalked up Russia’s Syrian experimentations with battlefield robots and drone swarms to clumsy failures. Clearly something had changed.

With his phone, Nowak recorded how the drones appeared to be coordinating their search activities as if they were a single hive intelligence. They divided the dense forest into cells they searched cooperatively. Within seconds, they climbed and dove from treetop height looking for anyone or anything hiding below.

At that very instant, the drone’s computer vision algorithms detected Novak’s team. Each and every one of them. Within seconds, six of the aggressively maneuvering drones revealed themselves in a disjointed dive down from the treetops and zoomed in on the JWK fighters’ positions.

Nobody needed to be told what to do. The team raised their weapons and fired short bursts at the Russian drones. One shattered like a clay pigeon. But two more buzzed into view to take its place. Another drone went down to a shotgun-fired SkyNet round. Then the entire drone formation shifted its flight patterns, dodging and maneuvering even more erratically, making it nearly impossible to shoot the rest down. The machines learned from their own losses, Nowak realized. Would his superiors do the same for him?

Nowak emptied his magazine with a series of quick bursts, but rather than reload he put his weapon aside and rolled out from under the log. Fully exposed and clutching the phone with shaking hands, he hastily removed one of his gloves with his teeth. Then he switched the device on. Network connected. He scrolled to the video of the drones. Send! Send! Send!

Eleven seconds later, Novak’s entire Polish JWK special forces team lay dead on the forest floor.

Jednostka Wojskowa Komandosow (JWK) / Source: Wikimedia Commons

________________________________

Omega is not any one specific weapon, rather it is made up of a menagerie of Russian weapons, large and small. It’s as if you fused information warfare, SAMs, fires, drones, tactical autonomous bots… There’s everything from S-600 batteries to cheap Katyusha-style rocket artillery to Uran-9 and -13 tanks. But it is what controls the hardware that makes Omega truly unique: AI. At its core, it’s an artificial intelligence system fusing data from thousands of sensors, processed information, and found patterns that human eyes and minds cannot fathom. The system’s AI is not only developing a comprehensive real-time picture, it’s also developing probabilities and possible courses of enemy action. It can coordinate thousands of “shooters”, from surface-to-air missiles, to specialized rocket artillery deploying autonomous tactical drones like the ones that killed the JWK team, to UGVs like the latest Uran-13 autonomous tracked units.

The developers of the Omega system incorporated technologies such as software-defined radio, which uses universal receivers that could listen in to a broad array of frequencies. Thousands of these bands are monitored with machine learning algorithms to spot insurgent radio stations, spy on the locations of Ukrainian military and police, and even determine if a certain frequency is being used to remotely control explosives or other military equipment. When a threat is discovered, the system will dispatch drones to observe the triangulated location of the source. If the threat needs to be neutralized a variety of kinetic systems – from guided artillery shells to loitering munitions and autonomous drones – can be dispatched for the kill.

________________________________

If you enjoyed this excerpt, please:

Read the complete Omega short story, hosted by our colleagues at the Atlantic Council NATOSource blog,

Learn how the U.S. Joint Force and our partners are preparing to prevail in competition with our strategic adversaries and, when necessary, penetrate and dis-integrate their anti-access and area denial systems and exploit the resultant freedom of maneuver to achieve strategic objectives (win) and force a return to competition on favorable terms in The U.S. Army in Multi-Domain Operations 2028 Executive Summary, and

See one prescription for precluding the strategic surprise that is the fictional Omega in The Importance of Integrative Science/Technology Intelligence (InS/TINT) to the Prediction of Future Vistas of Emerging Threats, by Dr. James Giordano,  CAPT (USN – Ret.) L. R. Bremseth, and Mr. Joseph DeFranco.

Reminder: You only have 1 week left to enter your submissions for the Mad Scientist Science Fiction Writing Contest 2019.  Click here for more information about the contest and how to submit your short story(ies) for consideration by our 1 April 2019 deadline!

Mr. August Cole is a proclaimed Mad Scientist, author, and futurist focusing on national security issues. He is a non-resident senior fellow at the Art of the Future Project at the Atlantic Council. He also works on creative foresight at SparkCognition, an artificial intelligence company, and is a senior advisor at Avascent, a consulting firm. His novel with fellow proclaimed Mad Scientist P.W. Singer, entitled Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War, explores the future of great power conflict and disruptive technologies in wartime.

Mr. Amir Husain is the founder and CEO of SparkCognition, a company envisioned to be at the forefront of the “AI 3.0” revolution. He serves as advisor and board member to several major institutions, including IBM Watson, University of Texas Department of Computer Science, Makerarm, ClearCube Technology, uStudio and others; and his work has been published in leading tech journals, including Network World, IT Today, and Computer World. In 2015, Amir was named Austin’s Top Technology Entrepreneur of the Year.

Disclaimer: This publication is a work of fiction by Messrs. August Cole and Amir Husain, neither of whom have any affiliation with U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, the U.S. Army, or the U.S. Government. This piece is meant to be thought-provoking and entertaining, and does not reflect the current position of the U.S. Army.

124. Mad Scientist Science Fiction Writing Contest 2019

[Editor’s Note:  Just a quick reminder that Mad Scientist is seeking your visions of future combat with our Science Fiction Writing Contest 2019.  Our deadline for submission is now one month out     — 1 APRIL 2019 so please review the contest details below, get those creative writing juices flowing, and send us your visions of combat in 2030!]

Background: The U.S. Army finds itself at a historical inflection point, where disparate, yet related elements of an increasingly complex Operational Environment (OE) are converging, creating a situation where fast-moving trends are rapidly transforming the nature of all aspects of society and human life – including the character of warfare. It is important to take a creative approach to projecting and anticipating both transformational and enduring trends that will lend themselves to the depiction of the future. In this vein, the U.S. Army Mad Scientist Initiative is seeking your creativity and unique ideas to describe a battlefield that does not yet exist.

Task: Write about the following scenario – On March 17th, 2030, the country of Donovia, after months of strained relations and covert hostilities, invades neighboring country Otso. Donovia is a wealthy nation that is a near-peer competitor to the United States. Like the United States, Donovia has invested heavily in disruptive technologies such as robotics, AI, autonomy, quantum information sciences, bio enhancements and gene editing, space-based weapons and communications, drones, nanotechnology, and directed energy weapons. The United States is a close ally of Otso and is compelled to intervene due to treaty obligations and historical ties. The United States is about to engage Donovia in its first battle with a near-peer competitor in over 80 years…

Three ways to approach:
1) Forecasting – Description of the timeline and events leading up to the battle.
2) Describing – Account of the battle while it’s happening.
3) Backcasting – Retrospective look after the battle has ended (i.e., After Action Review or lessons learned).

Three questions to consider while writing (U.S., adversaries, and others):
1) What will forces and Soldiers look like in 2030?
2) What technologies will enable them or be prevalent on the battlefield?
3) What do Multi-Domain Operations look like in 2030?

Submission Guidelines:
– No more than 5000 words in length
– Provide your submission in .doc or .docx format
– Please use conventional text formatting (e.g., no columns) and have images “in line” with text
– Submissions from Government and DoD employees must be cleared through their respective PAOs prior to submission
MUST include completed release form (on the back of contest flyer)
CANNOT have been previously published

Selected submissions may be chosen for publication or a possible future speaking opportunity.

Contact: Send your submissions to: usarmy.jble.tradoc.mbx.army-mad-scientist@mail.mil

For additional story telling inspiration, please see the following blog posts:

… and Dr. Lydia Kostopoulos‘ short story entitled The Most Eventful Night in the White House Situation Room: Year 2051, published by our colleagues at Small Wars Journal.

 

114. Mad Scientist Science Fiction Writing Contest 2019

Futuristic tank rendering  / Source: U.S. Army Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC)

[Editor’s Note:  Story Telling is a powerful tool that allows us to envision how innovative technologies could be employed and operationalized in the Future Operational Environment.  Mad Scientist is seeking your visions of future combat with our Science Fiction Writing Contest 2019.  Our deadline for submission is 1 APRIL 2019, so please review the contest details below, get those creative writing juices flowing, and send us your visions of combat in 2030!] 

Still from “The Future of the Soldier” video / Source:  U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research Development and Engineering Center

Background: The U.S. Army finds itself at a historical inflection point, where disparate, yet related elements of an increasingly complex Operational Environment (OE) are converging, creating a situation where fast moving trends are rapidly transforming the nature of all aspects of society and human life – including the character of warfare. It is important to take a creative approach to projecting and anticipating both transformational and enduring trends that will lend themselves to the depiction of the future. In this vein, the U.S. Army Mad Scientist Initiative is seeking your creativity and unique ideas to describe a battlefield that does not yet exist.

Illustration from “Silent Ruin” by Don Hudson & Kinsun Lo / Source:   U.S.  Army Cyber Institute at West Point

Task: Write about the following scenario – On March 17th, 2030, the country of Donovia, after months of strained relations and covert hostilities, invades neighboring country Otso. Donovia is a wealthy nation that is a near-peer competitor to the United States. Like the United States, Donovia has invested heavily in disruptive technologies such as robotics, AI, autonomy, quantum information sciences, bio enhancements and gene editing, space-based weapons and communications, drones, nanotechnology, and directed energy weapons. The United States is a close ally of Otso and is compelled to intervene due to treaty obligations and historical ties. The United States is about to engage Donovia in its first battle with a near-peer competitor in over 80 years…

Three ways to approach:
1) Forecasting – Description of the timeline and events leading up to the battle.
2) Describing – Account of the battle while it’s happening.
3) Backcasting – Retrospective look after the battle has ended (i.e., After Action Review or lessons learned).

Three questions to consider while writing (U.S., adversaries, and others):
1) What will forces and Soldiers look like in 2030?
2) What technologies will enable them or be prevalent on the battlefield?
3) What do Multi-Domain Operations look like in 2030?

Submission Guidelines:
– No more than 5000 words in length
– Provide your submission in .doc or .docx format
– Please use conventional text formatting (e.g., no columns) and have images “in line” with text
– Submissions from Government and DoD employees must be cleared through their respective PAOs prior to submission
MUST include completed release form (on the back of contest flyer)
CANNOT have been previously published

Selected submissions may be chosen for publication or a possible future speaking opportunity.

Contact: Send your submissions to: usarmy.jble.tradoc.mbx.army-mad-scientist@mail.mil

For additional story telling inspiration, please see the following blog posts: