The role of military SF in technological innovation

(I originally did this as a talk at the Australian Defence College in Canberra. When we still did things like that, obviously).

In the summer of 2001, a few months before Osama bin Laden borrowed a plot device from Tom Clancy’s 1994 novel Debt of Honor, US Army Intelligence declassified a fifty-seven year old file containing the details of the FBI’s investigation of another writer who seemingly glanced off the edge of history. Tom Clancy, and Cleve Cartmill an unremarkable scribbler of pulpy sci-fi and slightly more refined fantasy, each predicted with surprising accuracy the development and use of a weapon of mass destruction.

In Clancy’s novel, terrorists seized control of a civilian jet liner and plunged into the Houses of Congress.

In Cartmill’s short story, entitled Deadline and published in the March 1944 edition of Astounding Science Fiction, a commando hurries to defuse an atomic bomb while scientists debate the morality of ever using such a device.

For Clancy the price of foreshadowing was a couple of stupid interviews on cable TV.

For Cartmill, and John Campbell the editor of Astounding the consequence of publication was a counter intelligence investigation which rapidly metastasised to encompass potential treason by some of the greatest names in American science fiction.

Fifty-seven years later, the writer Robert Silverberg received the slightly waxy, buff-coloured file containing the administrivia of the FBI’s investigation into whether a spy ring of Cartmill, Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Philip K Dick and Robert Heinlein had somehow penetrated the black box of the Manhattan Project. Silverberg leafed through the ancient file, eventually writing up the story of science fiction’s brush with infamy for one of the accused co-conspirators own magazines. Asimov’s Science Fiction ran the piece over two issues, but I’ll cut to the spoiler.

No, the FBI, decided, the sci fi writers were not super spies.

Cartmill and Campbell had ginned up the story from publicly available sources.

This was not the first time fiction and reality had crossed over. H.G. Wells published one of his lesser known works, “The World Set Free” in 1914. Inspired by reading the scientific papers of Ernest Rutherford, and dedicated to the physicist Frederick Soddy’s book The Interpretation of Radium, Wells described a super weapon, the atomic bomb, which would hyper accelerate the slow decay of radioactive materials into a massively destructive, ‘forever explosion’ that would last, not seconds but weeks.

Sounds pretty cool, actually.

Well’s novel might have fallen victim, like so much else, to the actual horrors of the Great War, but it remained in print long enough for another scientist Leo Szilard to pick up a copy in 1932. That was the year James Chadwick reported the discovery of the neutron. In 1933 Szilárd conceived the idea of neutron chain reaction, and along with Enrico Fermi, filed for patents for a Nuclear reactor. In late 1939 he wrote the letter for Albert Einstein’s signature that resulted in the Manhattan Project that built the atomic bomb.

Five years later, Astounding Science Fiction published ‘Deadline’ and within a few days the project canteen at Los Alamos was abuzz with physicists, who were all huge sci fi nerds, talking about the disturbingly precise design of Cleve Cartmill and John Campbell’s atomic bomb.

Shortly thereafter, Special Agents came knocking on Cleve Cartmill’s door in... wait for it... Manhattan Beach, California.

There has always been a feedback loop running between the imaginations of science fiction writers and the published work of scientists. Recently, data analytics tools have been unleashed on the vast archives of scientific papers, scanning them for references to imaginative works of fiction. Unsurprisingly, many such references have been found. Interestingly, the linkages appear to be accelerating, with MIT’s Technology Review reporting that a team working under Doctor Philipp Jordan at the University of Hawaii, has identified a clear and increasing trend of scientific papers citing genre fiction from across all media forms.

Focussing in one one particular area, Human Factors in Computing Systems, Jordan’s team found that researchers used science fiction in a number of ways. Many turned to imagined technologies to help frame their own theoretical design. Others explored new forms of human-computer interaction, increasingly shaped by the storyworlds and rule setting of science fiction novels and films.

“Sci-fi movies, shows or stories,” writes Jordan, “do provide an inspiration for the foremost and upcoming human-computer interaction challenges of our time, for example through the discussion of shape-changing interfaces, implantables or digital afterlife ethics.”

If that sounds a page too far, the engineering of human afterlife is the ultimate goal of Elon Musk’s Neuralink Corporation, because the digitisation of consciousness and sentience is the definitive end state of any brain machine interface.

If corporations are increasingly paying sci fi creators as pathfinders for potential technologies and their social impact — and they are, the term of the art is called science fiction prototyping — its only natural that public agencies should ask themselves the same questions.

It doesn’t mean you’ll get smart answers. I very much enjoyed Dr Seebeck telling me last night that when Defence asked the frontline grunts in Afghanistan what sort of cool sci fi tech they wanted, the answer they got was light sabres.

Seriously who wouldn’t want that?

But it does recall Steve Jobs musing that if Henry Ford had asked his customers what they wanted they would have answered a faster horse.

It might be that having captured your wild sci fi author in a small cage cunningly baited with tiny pastries and a bottomless cup of coffee, that the least productive use of your shiny new proto-typist is coming up with new weapons.

The non kinetic impacts of such weapons and technologies, however, may well be fertile ground. The best writers and creators always surprise you, and soldiers do not like surprises. At least, not when they are on the receiving of them.

Time and again, life imitates the art of writers like Clancy, or Cartmill or HG Wells, again, who predicted the development of the main battle tank more than a decade before the British Mark I trundled and creaked across the Somme. The most prescient element of Wells atomic bomb story, however, was not the explosion with a half-life of seventeen days, as cool as that would be, but the authors rumination on the fundamental disruption to the practice of making war as a method of doing politics by other means.

HG understood that weapons of mass destruction assured universal destruction should they ever be deployed, anticipating the strategic re-thinking of great power rivalry in the era of nuclear war.

Light sabres are cool.

Powered armour is cool.

But that is not what’s going to kill us next. If you want me to prototype an apocalypse for you... I give you siege and starvation.

Modern inventory systems have come close to perfecting the just-in-time ideal, whether delivering rubber window wiper blades to the manufacturing floor of a Toyota plant at just the right moment, or filling the hot chicken cabinet at your local Woolworths with only so much cheap and tasty, high fat protein as an entirely predictable number of consumers will come to regret by close of business each day.

Just-in-time processes keep shelves full and profits fat.

They are also a point of critical failure, with entire industries grinding to a halt should a single supplier prove unable to deliver their particular part of the puzzle.

Risk management specialists in the UK are this very moment freaking out over the country’s food security in the event of a hard Brexit completely and immediately exploding the logistics chains keeping nearly seventy-million Brits supplied with cheap curry, lager and pork pies. In a 2018 Brexit briefing paper the UK’s Centre for Food Policy, wrote that Britain’s food arrives at the table “via a complex logistics system run on a just-in-time basis, i.e. three to five days’ supply. There are only tiny food stocks, commercial or public, held in the UK’s food distribution chain.”

Brexit has focussed the minds of at least handful of responsible bureaucrats on the old adage that civilisation is only ever nine meals away from collapse. But increasingly, the vulnerability of national food systems run according to just-in-time principles are also drawing the attention of other strategic planners.

The US Centre for Naval Analyses has published research confirming that most modern cities cannot feed themselves from shelf stock for more than three days, and Canada’s national agency for Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness (PSEPC) identified the inevitability of panic buying as a further limit on that three day horizon.

For such a glaring and obvious point of failure, there has been very little public discussion of the fragility of modern food supply systems in advanced economies. In the US, for instance, a handful of wholesale distributors source, store and transport the vast majority of the food consumed by three hundred and twenty-eight million Americans, fifty million of whom are already described as being ‘food insecure’; a bloodless bureaucratic term meaning they might not be able to eat today.

The public imagination, when it focusses on the idea of cyberwar at all, tends to imagine attacks on power utilities and transport systems. The Russian and Chinese militaries continually probe for weaknesses in those systems, just as western agencies do in return.

But with so much of the west in particular being so highly urbanised, large cities and towns are uniquely exposed to a singular line of attack on their food supply chains. Malware placed into the servers of just thee US companies that control 250 of the country’s 300 major food distribution depots could quickly starve out most of the US population. In Australia, the dominance of the two main supermarkets creates a delicious target for hostile actors.

How real is the threat?

While researching Zero Day Code, an audiobook based on published plans and scenarios for a major cyberwar between China, Russia and the West, I was struck by just how completely vulnerable we are to the risk of systemic collapse in the event of conflict. It is quite possible that the end of civilisation could be effected, not with an exchange of nuclear-tipped ICBMs, but by a small packet of code. And the most likely and effective strategy for using that invisible high tech weaponry?

A Dark Ages favourite. Siege and starvation.