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November 11, 2015
Today, the Atlantic Council is publishing an anthology of short fiction and graphic art it curated over the first year in its Art of Future Warfare Project. Entitled War Stories From the Future, the collection makes good on the Project's mission statement: “…to advance thinking [about] the future of warfare [by] cultivating a community of interest in works and ideas arising from the intersection of creativity and expectations about how emerging antagonists, disruptive technologies, and novel warfighting concepts may animate tomorrow’s conflicts.” Writing in a Forward to the anthology, General Martin Dempsey, the recently retired Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, commends the book's ten stories for their “power to develop the professional imagination.”

On no one topic do these war stories more powerfully engage the imagination than human-machine collaboration, a concept which Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work calls "the big idea" now animating the DoD's pursuit of a new “offset strategy.” Speaking at last weekend's Reagan National Defense Forum in California, Work said that “we will go after human-machine collaboration… [by] allowing the machine to help humans make better decisions faster.” What Work described as five “building blocks” of the concept—learning machines, automated systems, machine-assisted human operations, human-machine combat teaming, and autonomous weapons—turn out to be the very wonders and worries depicted in War Stories From the Future.

As expected of science fiction, the book depicts an array of cool machines and futuristic capabilities. A renegade pilot wears haptic gloves to command a spaceplane from the ground station of her college dorm room. The internet of things goes awry in the violent crash of autonomous streetcars in Seoul and the fatal hacking of a certain president's pacemaker in Moscow. Tattoos stream data, robotic EMTs rescue the wounded, and 3-D printers fabricate an airborne arsenal literally on the fly.

More surprising is the substance these stories give to conventional wisdoms about non-state combatants fighting future wars. The United States commissions "hackaneers" to exact rough justice on cyberpirates. The United Nations commands a brigade of eco-warriors to seize a cache of illicit ivory, pelts, and aphrodisiacs. Covert vigilantes patrol low-earth orbit on behalf of a nation-state of citizens allied only in cyberspace. Counterterrorism targets are validated by a crowd-sourced intelligence network comprising “civilians in Schaumberg, Illinois… or Tampa, Florida… or commuting on the train to the night shift at a Sacramento, California motel.”

Not least, women play decisive roles on these battlefields of future conflict. Commanding palm-sized drones from a cubicle five thousand miles away, Karin renders real-time ISR to two female lieutenants defending a desert city against insurgents. Claire coordinates police interventions on Britons who exhibit a genetic tendency toward radicalization. A small, dark-haired woman holding an ambiguous shopping bag stands defiantly (or threateningly or perhaps plaintively) before a monstrous armored vehicle in the middle of a sunbaked highway.

Still, the compilation's deeper insights arise from its ruminations about the complex relationship between humans and the machines of future war. While robotics and autonomy in these stories do serve to spare human flesh, the remote operations they enable also turn soldiering into a profession of physical isolation and spiritual alienation. Big-data computations that help humans make good, quick decisions do drive action, but the great drama in these stories still turns on heroic human choices and their tragic or comic consequences.

In the parable that forms the spine of this anthology, an elite soldier, Captain Galatin, engages a chatterbot psychiatrist in a dialectic over the difference between men of war and machines. “Aren't we all made up, in essence, only of code?” asks the robot-doctor rhetorically. “Say what you want about evolution,” Galatin responds with ironic resolve, “but maybe we sometimes become human by feeling ripped apart by confusion.” And so it goes that in a future of super-smart weapons, warriors may keep hold of their humanity only by a constant embrace with the fog of war that threatens their lives.

The novelist Frederick Pohl said of his genre, “a good science fiction story should be able to predict not the automobile but the traffic jam.” So too in War Stories From the Future, it is the messy odd-coupling of human-machine collaboration, rather than some elegant symbiosis, that will do the most to inspire professional imagination about a defense strategy for offsetting the challenge of future adversaries.

Steven Grundman is the M.A. and George Lund Fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security. This essay also appears in Aviation Week & Space Technology.