Science fiction writers have often preempted many modern scientific and technological developments, from credit cards and mobile phones, to military tanks and even antidepressants. But now two sci-fi writers have teamed up with the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) to help imagine what the wars of tomorrow will look like.
The authors, Peter Warren Singer and August Cole, have produced eight short stories exploring the potential threats emerging technologies may present in the next 20 years. Like mini-episodes of Black Mirror, each story looks at developments in specific areas – such as artificial intelligence (AI), data modeling, drone swarms, quantum computing and human enhancement, among others – and applies them to the battlefield. They also explore the implications of a world where radical shifts in green technologies produce new geopolitical conflicts.
The logic behind this unusual pairing is clear – storytellers, according to the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl), the division of the MOD that commissioned the project, have a unique ability to imagine the unimaginable, and such scenarios may be of value for defense planning. “While technologies like PowerPoint, so common for sharing ideas in defence and security communities, are only three decades old,” Dstl states, “narrative has been used to convey human conflict throughout the entire arc of human history, dating back to the very first conversations held around a fire in Paleolithic caves.”
Both Singer and Cole have experience with security subjects and modern warfare, and are proponents of what they refer to as FicInt (Fictional Intelligence) or “useful fictions”, a term that Cole coined in 2015. The approach combines “fiction writing with intelligence to imagine future scenarios in ways grounded in reality”, Cole explained in a 2019 blog post. Ultimately, the hope of these stories is that they will be entertaining and informative and, through the narrative settings and characters who share research ideas, a reader will be able learn about the transformative potential some technologies have and how they could shape future conflicts.
Chief Scientific Advisor to the MOD Dame Angela McLean stated that, “Defence needs to harness the creativity and vision of this sector to further stimulate foresight and innovation to develop agile and resilient solutions for the future.”
The stories are told in various formats, including first- and third-person narratives, as well as through newspaper clippings and obituaries. Several stories also take inspiration from features of the two World Wars, including the recovery of the Enigma Machine and two enemies stopping their fight to play football, as happened on Christmas Day 1914.
The collection of stories starts with A Glimmer of Hope, which examines the role quantum computing may have in a future conflict and how it may give one nation an advantage over the other. A Model Peace looks at how companies and nations use data and data modeling in unethical and dominating ways, while Chasing Glory, the third story, tells of the threats and opportunities that may arise from new computer paradigms through the broadcast of a digital journalist on an uncrewed supply convoy being attacked.
Measure of the Mind is told by a research report on a world leader carried out by an AI system, and explores how cyberpsychology could be used to manipulate and predict how people think. AI is then further explored in The AI of Beresford Bridge, while the sixth story, Silent Skies, set in 2040, looks at autonomous drone technology and the damage it could cause.
The penultimate tale, Green Wars, looks at the impacts a societal shift towards net-zero carbon dioxide emissions would have on geopolitics, especially over who controls new green technologies and resources. Finally, The Solstice Cup turns attention to human enhancement, and how advanced soldiers called “perfs” play a game of football with Russian enemies while bounding across the pitch at 30 miles per hour.