My newest novel, The Red, is the first volume in a trilogy of very near-future military thrillers. One of my goals in writing these books was to reflect the world in which we live, and that meant basing the story world’s fictional technologies on real world advances—and it is amazing what is going on around planet Earth.
The breadth, complexity, and speed of technological development can be overwhelming, but here are five real-world ideas behind some of the extrapolated technology of The Red.
Not long ago I saw a call for the term “artificial intelligence” to be jettisoned from the lexicon because it has too many meanings, and because those meanings change with time, technology, and circumstance, and because it does not (necessarily) mean “strong AI,” that is, a self-aware, pseudo-human general intelligence.
The meaning I’m after right now is “narrow AI”—a program devised for a specific task and capable of handling massively complex data, but without any semblance of self-awareness. In The Red, narrow AIs are everywhere, maintaining databases, monitoring surveillance feeds, determining identities through biometric analysis, overseeing the action of mechanical sensors, analyzing intelligence reports, adjusting brain function, and so on. They are the means to handle and interpret vast floods of data.
Exoskeletons are real and they’re rapidly evolving. Lockheed Martin’s FORTIS is an unpowered, lightweight industrial exoskeleton designed to offload the weight of heavy tools so that they feel almost weightless in the hands of the operator. Other exoskeleton designs have been introduced that allow paraplegics to walk again.
Work has been done on combat exoskeletons too. Another recent Lockheed Martin project, HULC, was a prototype combat exoskeleton designed to help a boots-on-the-ground warfighter carry heavy combat loads over rough terrain. That project is idle, but U.S. Special Operations Command has recently launched a challenge to encourage development of a Tactical Assault Light Operator’s Suit (TALOS).
The combat exoskeleton envisioned in The Red is a lightweight, agile device that augments a soldier’s strength, speed, and endurance. To make it real we’d need to see significant advances in sensors, mechanics, and power supply—not easy problems. A working combat exoskeleton might be one of the more fantastical elements in the book.
Neuromodulation is a general term for therapies that seek to affect the activity of the nervous system, including the brain. Many approaches are under study in what is a complex and rapidly evolving field. One of these, optogenetics, is a means of studying and affecting the activity of individual neurons. Optogenetics works by introducing a light-sensitive microbial protein into specific brain cells, making those cells responsive to light. Wireless micro LEDs implanted within the brains of mice serving as test subjects, can be triggered to deliver pulses of light that stimulate patterns of behavior.
Another potential means of affecting neural activity is the recently announced electronic mesh that can be injected into the brain to monitor the workings of neurons. The mesh was announced long after the final draft of The Red was done, but it goes to show that revolutionary new means of neuromodulation are on the way.
Improved techniques and an increased understanding of neural function could lead to a means of stimulating individual neurons in the human brain to affect brain state—and to regulate the state of mind of a war fighter. In The Red, complex neural control allows a soldier to maintain an alert state despite fatigue, as well as the opposite—to sleep and wake on command. The ability to manage brain state might also be used to mitigate the effects of severe combat stress that lead to post-traumatic stress disorder.
Once the detailed activity of the brain can be monitored, is it possible to interpret or decode that activity so that it can be translated into words or images or actions? The answer seems to be yes. Brain-machine interfaces have already been developed that allow quadriplegics to manipulate robot arms.
When brain activity can be observed in detail, in real time, with an AI tasked with interpreting that activity and learning the patterns of thought in an individual’s brain, might it be possible to “talk” to the observing AI without ever uttering a word? Non-invasive EEG sensors already exist in many forms. In The Red, sensors are embedded in the brain, where they’re able to capture a detailed real-time picture of thought patterns.
Satellite communications are essential to modern military activity, linking personnel and equipment around the globe. Drone pilots physically located in the United States operate unmanned aerial vehicles on the other side of the planet, while computers installed in battlefield vehicles display locations of friendly and hostile forces. In The Red, satellite communications are even more integral to battlefield activity as each soldier in a field unit—a “linked combat squad”—is electronically linked to every other. A heads-up display maps the terrain, identifies friendlies and enemy, marks targets, and even projects a safe path onto the terrain when needed. Physiology is monitored, along with weapons and ammunition, and communication with Command is continuous. But to avoid information overload a human handler is placed in the line of communications—a single individual who, like a drone pilot, is located in an office far from the battlefield. The handler acts as remote support, tasked with monitoring the squad’s activity, relaying commands, providing reports, interpreting intelligence, and summoning backup as needed.
I’ve broken out these ideas—artificial intelligence, exoskeletons, neuromodulation, technological mind-reading, and global communications—into separate categories, but what’s fascinating to me is how they integrate, and interrelate. For example, it’s easy to imagine a combat exoskeleton that, instead of responding to a user’s movement, anticipates it through a brain-computer interface that in turn relies on narrow AI to interpret the user’s intention. And it’s important to remember that advances in one field generate advances in others, often in surprising ways.
War has always been a driver of technology, and will continue to be for the foreseeable future. Science fiction gives us a means to explore how and why we might fight in future wars.
Linda Nagata is a science fiction and fantasy author from Hawaii. The Red is the first volume of The Red Trilogy, now available from Saga Press. Book 2, The Trials, releases August 18, with the final volume, Going Dark, publishing in November.