When the military asks for fiction, it’s for the purpose of sketching out the landscape of future war. Not the exact players - fickle elements prone to political circumstance and random accident - but the stuff of war: the tools, the people, the kinds of locales that will see battles and the use of force.
Today, the blog of the Army’s Mad Scientist Laboratory (part of U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command) is showcasing an entry on how AI will shape the future of the Army itself, down to the electro-mechanical organs of individual soldiers. In his short story “Sine Pari,” senior concept developer Howard R. Simkin of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command imagines a typical day recruiting for Special Operations in the middle of the 21st century.
From “Sine Pari”:
“My uncle was in Special Operations during ‘the Big One.’ Next to my dad, he is the coolest person I ever met, so …” He searched for words, “So I decided to come and check it out.”
“Okay.” I began. “This isn’t your uncle’s Special Operations. Since the Big One, we’ve made quite a few” – I caught myself before saying changes – “upgrades.” I paused, “Roberto, before we take the enhanced reality tour, I’d like to know what augments you have had – if any.”
“Sure.” Roberto paused for a moment,“ Let’s see…I’ve got Daystrom Model 40B ER corneal implants, a Neuralink BCI jack, and a Samsung cognitive enhancement implant. That’s about it.”
The essence of “Sine Pari,” is one of hackable bodies and hackable systems. The young recruit has already augmented his body, and has childhood experience hacking the robots and household AIs he grew up with. We don’t know the kinds of wars prospective recruit Roberto Preciado will fight, or even the nature of The Big One fought before this time. Instead, we get a portrait of a highly advanced scanning system, helpful AIs in the place of aides, and a social comfort with biomechanical body enhancements.
What is missing from this portrait, yet implied by this world, is the massive amount of cybersecurity back-end needed to secure not just the devices a person uses, but the devices people put into their bodies. To take this to one logical end, we need only remember how, two weeks ago, a popular jogging app made headlines because of the paths it revealed around military bases. Jogging apps that log the GPS position of a user, and then upload it later, create maps of some value, and are a good way to think about the vulnerabilities inherent in aggregate data.
In “Sine Pari,” we get a recruit with three augmentations: electronic eyes, a brain input link, and a brain enhancement. Notably, these are also all assumed to be from major brands, ones where it’s entirely possible the security flaws can be studied and exploited for profit. Now, it’s possible that after recruiting, our new Special Operator swaps out commercial parts for models built to military specifications, which would be a tidy way to close that potential plot hole. It’s also possible, following the logic of this world, that when Roberto Preciado joins the force, his cognitive enhancement contains malicious code, his eyes record everything he sees, and his brain-link transmits that information to an interested third party, who suddenly has eyes on the inside a Special Operations unit.
When we think of the potential the future brings, we have to think of the risk as well. Electronic eyeballs are one compromise eye from picture-perfect spy cameras. Brain uplinks and cognitive enhancements may greatly reduce training times and allow the rapid learning of complex skills, but they could also be a pathway to compromise or hijack the brain of the person in question. As the tools of war change, the adversarial nature of war, the danger of technologies exploited against their users, remain.
Fortunately, both for the fictional protagonist here and for TRADOC’s Soldier 2050 concept more broadly, this is not a stand-alone project. On March 8 and 9, TRADOC is co-sponsoring a Bio Convergence and Soldier 2050 Conference in Menlo Park, California.
Kelsey Atherton blogs about military technology for C4ISRNET, Fifth Domain, Defense News, and Military Times. He previously wrote for Popular Science, and also created, solicited, and edited content for a group blog on political science fiction and international security.