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Space the Nation: Why science fiction matters to the future of war

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Oct 9, 2018, 3:01 PM EDT

Peter W. Singer grew up equally fascinated by Star Wars and World War II and turned those interests into a kind of dream job—if thinking about threats to humanity and the unintended consequences of technology can be considered “dreamy” rather than “nightmarish.” He is an expert on “21st-century warfare,” and Singer does get to do cool things, such as consult on the Call of War series and serve on the advisory group for the United States’ Joint Forces Command. But mostly, he thinks about the worst that could happen.

His most recent book, LikeWar, addresses the weaponization of social media. We talked to him about the role that science fiction has played in inspiring weapons and why the military brass should read more.

Your claim to fame appears to be anticipating advances in warfare: You wrote about private armies before anyone had heard of Blackwater (in Corporate Warriors), you wrote about robotics and drones on the battlefield before they became a major part of the war on terror (Wired for War), and you co-wrote a novel (Ghost Fleet) that is now part of military education curricula. I told my husband you’re a “military futurist.”

I don't brand myself as it because it comes across a little bit hucksterish. But my research has always been on areas of change and how there's new patterns, new actors, that don't fit into the way we understand the world.

You don't like the word futurist but you do a lot of thinking about the future of war.

Another reason I don’t like the term is that “futurism” is often a politically correct way to talk about today. People dismissed Ghost Fleet with “Oh this is futurist.” And we're like, “Every single technology in it exists today.”

But I presume that it’s your fascination with what doesn’t actually exist — science fiction — that put you on the career path you’re on.

For sure. When I was a kid, if you handed me a stick, within a couple of seconds that stick was either going to be a lightsaber or it was going to be, you know, something to hurl back against the Nazis invading the neighborhood. So, I had two twin passions, I loved history and I loved science fiction. And the military has always overlapped science fiction. You know, the very first social network on a military-funded computer network was a conversation list about science fiction.

When people are trying to sell something to the Pentagon, a big part of how it’s sold is always, “This is just like Star Trek. This is just like Star Wars.” It gets kind of silly. I remember visiting a cybersecurity center a defense contractor was selling and they said, “It's designed just like the Enterprise.” And it even had the doors that would open with the whooshing sound from Next Generation. But if you know anything about cybersecurity — that's not the best layout. What you really need is just a bunch of standing desks.

To me, that’s seeing science fiction as a giant catalog — cool stuff you might get to use someday. Does telling a story about how those things are used matter?

Of course. One, [a story] drops people in that world, they visualize themselves in it -- ‘What would I do if I was X?’ The second is that if it's well done, they want to talk to other people about it, they want to share that emotional experience with someone else. In both of those categories, no white paper, no memo, can do that. So, a memo could predict the future -- a memo can validate -- but a memo doesn't excite you, doesn't make you go, ‘What would I do if I was character X? Or if I fell in love with character X?’ You very rarely get a memo and say, “I really want to share this with someone else.”

Yeah. I mean, you've sold me. With that in mind, do you think our military leaders are reading enough fiction? It seems like they should read more.

I would agree with you. When you're thinking about what our military is facing, whether it's how to understand the Afghan battlefield or understanding Russian information operations or a rising China, the human side of it is equally or more important and that's a part that has been tougher to get people’s heads around. But there's been this kind of little mini-revolution that's gone on within military circles over the last couple years of fiction being pushed out — people writing fiction as a way of learning — and the tool of the fiction being used to teach. The lead of the Army infantry training at Fort Benning — who's now the commander of our forces in Afghanistan — he read Ghost Fleet and made it a requirement for memos to begin with a fictional scenario describing the problem and then push for what you're advocating. The Marine Warfighting lab commissioned science fiction authors to aid Marines in writing about the problems and issues they might face in the future. In fiction, there was a way for the young Marine to basically say, “We're getting crud gear and we might have people killed.” But if he wrote a memo that said that or if he wrote it directly in the professional journal it might be bad for his career, but he does it through fiction and people might listen. So science fiction in the military can be a tool and a product.

Let’s talk about science fiction specifically. What have you seen or read recently that is raising the right questions for us to be thinking about?

Ex Machina. I mean, I wrote a nonfiction book on robotics, so maybe it’s not surprising. It's a well-made movie but it also gave you that sense of unease.

That’s funny, one reason I wanted to talk to you is that I wrote about drones last week and I saw you mention in an interview something I agree with, that we have really let robots and drones into our lives without a lot of thought.

Right, we think of it as “robotics,” but that’s a misnomer. We think of “robots” as this physical thing, like C3P0 is going to walk into our home, when instead robotics and AI are going to be like electricity. They’re going to be everywhere.

And in Ex Machina, you also have these issues of repeated designer arrogance and ignorance of political, legal, ethical, moral issues. Which is a real problem: there’s the designer in that movie, and there’s what the creators of the social media platforms are going through with right now. They have the assumption “What I've created, of course, it will turn out for the best, because I have good intentions,” or, “I’m just an engineer, I just build things.” And then, when pressed for the solution to it, they say, “Oh, well, I'll come up with a new technology.” [Laughs] It becomes a cycle.

When I was interviewing people for Wired for War, Donna Shirley — she was head of the Mars Rover project — she had this great insight, it was something like, “Science fiction doesn't tell you how to build the bomb, it tells you what happens if you do.”

See, I feel like science fiction writers maybe do a better job than military leaders of gaming out the unintended consequences of technological advances.

Maybe, but you also have the problem of a lot of most powerful people in Silicon Valley — who are increasingly the most powerful people in the world — and their philosophy is cruddy science fiction philosophy.

And those people get excited by something because it’s something out of a science fiction novel, but…

That’s just the start of the story. The end of the story is they end up in a dystopia.

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