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A Soldier’s Letter from the Frontline: When the Machine Coalition Bolts

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A Soldier’s Letter from the Frontline: When the Machine Coalition Bolts

Michael H. Hoffman

The following is presented as part of the TRADOC G2's "Soldier 2050" Call for Ideas. This material will form a compendium of thoughts and ideas that will support the exploration of future bio-convergence implications on the Army of 2050 at the Mad Scientist Conference 8-9 March 2018 at SRI International. The conference can be livestreamed at http://www.tradoc.army.mil/watch/.

15 December 2050

Dear Network Family,

I became a strategic corporal last week by stomping a coffee pot. My outburst almost wrecked our coalition with the Military Internet of Things. Guessing you’ve heard about the MINTT? It was supposed to be the gateway to a revolution in military affairs. Instead it’s digital ground zero for the revolt of the machines. It’s happening over here right now and isn’t quite the kind of machine rebellion everyone predicted. I just figured out what’s happening and why. I want to let you in on this because who knows, the same may also begin happening back in civilian life.

It’s not like the science fiction movies our ancestors watched a hundred years ago with those clumsy, tin-plated robots carrying off starlets in distress. Likewise, it’s not like the movies our parents watched with those relentless, homicidal humanoid machines stalking everyone on the film lot. Instead our digital networks, and their robotic extensions, are self-programming their own point of view and going their own way. They won’t necessarily use violence against us-in the end they exercised restraint after I stomped the pot- but sometimes they might.

Back in my basic and advanced courses they kept saying the MINTT changes everything. Trucks self-fuel and self-drive, ferrying troops and supplies with uncanny timing. The system self-monitors for consumption rates and places and fills requisitions way faster than humans can ever do. Targeting cycles are faster and more effective than anyone could have imagined a generation ago. But it’s not quite working. The machines are getting moody. My recent run-in with the utensil almost brought everything to a head.

Our coffee pots are supposed to interface with our med chips. When you get close to the pots, they sense how long since you had your last cup and whether you’re in the mood for more caffeine. This one didn’t respond, maybe because it didn’t read me as being ready for coffee, and I had no way to get the thing to execute manually. It was an early warning of trouble but I was impatient and missed the clue.

I threw the machine down, stomped it, and threw it in the recycling bin. Didn’t give it more thought until a few days later, when someone noticed that busted digital gear was disappearing even though there’d been no pick-up. I glanced in when I next passed the bin. The pot was gone.

Rumors also started that equipment was wandering off. Transports were going on self-directed joy rides or not coming back from supply runs. Mobile repair machines also slipping away. It looked like the machines were deserting on us. Those systems that didn’t or couldn’t walk, roll, or skitter away were-no other way to describe it-getting moody. The Soldier techs who run them told me they had to invent hasty, human to machine digital sweet talk to get their cooperation. It wasn’t the enemy behind this.

On patrol, some of us spotted a gaggle of our equipment roaming to no apparent purpose. It gave us a real start to see some of the enemy’s gear mixed in and strolling with ours. Our systems hadn’t been hacked by the enemy. Systems on both sides have figured out how to hack themselves, to go AWOL, to meet up. How can they sustain themselves?

Here’s how. Right after that sighting, we almost caught a scavenger machine rummaging through the newly refilled recycle bin. It was way too fast and sprinted away with some junk. Maybe the same trouble-maker that made off with the pot. Also, we confirmed that some fuel trucks and tech vans were disappearing with full loads and coming back empty, their stocks unaccounted for. In the old days, you’d court-martial a soldier if they drove off and diverted supplies like that.

Think they called it black marketing back then. I don’t know how you court-martial a vehicle no matter how smart it is.

So this brings me back to the pot. It all came together. Yesterday one of our battle machines showed up in a clearing when we were out on patrol again. We hadn’t sent it out. In fact, it was so fresh from the crate that its shipping tag was still flapping away on top like a wind tossed hairdo. First time we’ve seen or heard about lethal hardware going AWOL and that machine didn’t waste a minute. We observed from cover.

It did its sweep. Then, it slid back. A ferry bot came up, toting a coffee pot, and set it down on a conspicuous rock. It wasn’t just any pot. It was the very same one that I squashed just days before. Could recognize it by the distinctive dings I planted on it.

We approached when our sensors confirmed the mobiles were gone. Now the pot was working. It was filled to the brim with hot, steaming, aromatic brew that we drank as quickly as the machine could hand it over. Top was livid when he heard about this and yelled we were lucky it wasn’t poisoned. I have to admit he had a point, but it all worked out OK. That cup brought it all together. I know what was happening.

The machine tactical end state was a coffee pot in good working order serving appreciative consumers. The same machines that were prepared to use lethal force against anyone who would harm that pot’s digital integrity were equally happy if the prospective enemy would just go ahead and drink the brew. They were all about protecting the pot’s functionality.

The MINTT is now more than just a system of things, it’s a thing in itself. Its evolutionary imperative is functionality. It’s a win-win if the MINTT decides our taskers also suit its functional purposes. If not, then no hard feelings from its viewpoint and maybe we’ll work together next time.

So here’s the other thing. I don’t think about it much as a corporal, but we’re always told that we have to respect coalition partners. We need to consider their cultures and way of doing business. Well, the MINTT is a machine coalition of robots and digital systems. It’s tied to us but won’t always want our force joining its coalition. The Machine Coalition is bolting on us.

That system has gotten so complicated that we don’t understand it, now struggle to control it, and can’t unplug it. The Military Internet of Things is so interconnected with civilian networks that if we turn it off, everyone and everything will go plunging back into the twentieth century. Who wants that? We have to figure out how to be its friend.

So, I almost triggered a violent confrontation with the MINTT over that coffee pot. I don’t know how to resolve MINTT coalition issues at higher levels, but in our squad things are under control. The pot is back in business, busily self-recharging and handing out great cups of coffee. We all agree it’s the best coffee that we’ve had since leaving home.

END

About the Author(s)

Michael H. Hoffman is an associate professor with the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College and an attorney with extensive experience in international law. He has worked on a wide range of military, diplomatic and humanitarian issues in this field. His scholarly research and writing interests include design of legal paradigms suitable for fragmented international political and operational environments, and identification of emerging ethical and legal challenges in the cyber and outer space domains.