In this episode of the MWI Podcast, John Amble talks to Martha Wells, author of the four-volume science fiction series The Murderbot Diaries. The central character of those books’ plot is a hybrid being—composed in part of living tissue but equipped with artificial intelligence. Because of that, the series offers a powerful tool for helping us to think about things like robotics and AI on the battlefield, how we make use of those technologies, and even how we relate to machines that, with increasingly sophisticated capabilities, will take on more and more tasks for which humans are currently responsible—both physical and cognitive. These are all questions that, in military and defense circles, are going to have to be contended with, especially in the context of manned-unmanned teaming.
Special thanks for this episode goes to the Army’s Mad Scientist program. This is the final in a series of podcasts we recorded in partnership with the Mad Scientist team at a recent conference organized by the program.
You can listen to the full conversation, and if you aren’t already subscribed to the MWI Podcast, be sure to find it on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or your favorite podcast app so you don’t miss an episode!
Image credit: All Systems Red (Tor.com); cover art by Jaime Jones
A common Sci-Fi referral among the U.S. military is Robert A. Heinlein's "Starship Troopers" book where armored fighting suits with arm missiles and huge weaponry battle the Alien "Bugs." Other common Sci-Fi references used by the U.S. military are ALIENS, TERMINATOR, Star Wars, and Star Trek.
Seriously, though, those old movies have yet to produce some of the military technologies seen in them although did make some of the technologies for both military and civilian use. Science Fiction has far outpaced current military technology as in 2019 there are no hovertanks, giant combat fighting robots, endoskeleton or liquid metal Terminators, or laser ray guns. We don't have invisible shields, or lightsabers, or Death Star.
Military technology has indeed come far though, allowing soldiers to see in the darkness and even use a one-man flyboard to cross the English Channel. Cars can drive itself, soldiers can video conference, and a small unmanned space plane can stay up for years. Satellites take photos of Earth and eavesdrop on all communications. Supercomputers can do wonders and we harnessed the power of the atom.
And yet the Sci-Fi computer graphics and videogames have far outpaced what future combat would be like, showing a high-tech world that still seems unachievable with today's energy power and material technology. Already in the 1980s, giant Japanese robots were fighting on TV with shields, missiles, laser guns, and exotic sensors and armor. Soldiers in hard armor bodysuits with AI implants were already fighting in Japanese Anime—ironically all produced from an Asian nation with a Constitution only for self-defense.
These comics, movies, stories, and cartoons showcased superweapons, be they robots, spaceships, mechs, cyborgs, vehicles, or AI that wrought incredible havoc on society and the populace. No one was safe; human life was expendable; soldiers were treated like fodder against giant robots and monsters, and most sides committed atrocities and were both good and bad with little to no ethics or morality.
The Anime war cartoons were often stalemates, long and dragging with convoluted background histories as to how they started and what occurred—even kids fought and piloted giant robots. Unlike reading text novels, the cartoons and movies showed the viewers EXACTLY what the creators wanted them to see, nothing was left to the viewers' imaginations.
Humanity is fortunately far from such a conventional weaponized future of giant robots, hovertanks, cyborgs, shape-shifters, or super-soldiers as we have developed missiles that can render harm faster and farther than these cartoons. However, the graphic artists and cartoonists, ironically, know and depict more about future Sci-Fi wars than some of the leading military experts and Think Tankers.
I'm not saying Sci-Fi novelists are outdated, but the future of war has been shown on Anime, Hollywood movies, and Japanese television dating back to the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s—30 to 40 years ago.