The Wildest Technologies Changing How the Military Fights

Left of Boom Episode 20: The Wildest Technologies Changing How the Military Fights
Left of Boom Episode 20: The Wildest Technologies Changing How the Military Fights (Ft. Peter W. Singer and August Cole)

Warfighting has come a long way from machine guns mounted on the back of horse-drawn carriages. New technologies can allow militaries to create and replenish weapons and ammunition on the run; train in virtual environments that they can touch, taste and smell; and command hordes of tiny drones that swarm enemy combatants on command. In many cases, what's standing between the U.S. military and effective implementation of these technologies is trust -- and a thorough understanding of how they work and how they transform the battlespace. That's where Peter W. Singer and August Cole come in. These two military futurists bring new warfighting technologies to life in gripping novels. And their books sometimes inspire generals to take action.

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Mentioned in this episode:

Ghost Fleet



Loyal Wingman

Military Simulation

3D Printing

The following is an edited transcript of this episode of Left of Boom:

Hope Hodge Seck 0:00

Welcome back to Left of Boom. I'm your host, managing editor Hope Hodge Seck. It's not often that you see generals and admirals walking around with a novel tucked under their arm. But if you do, there's a solid chance it's one written by Dr. Peter Singer and August Cole. These military technologists have pioneered a way to bring future warfare scenarios to life through gripping fiction that is as fun to read as it is terrifying to envision. Their first collaborative novel, Ghost Fleet ended up on the Marine Corps professional reading list and spurred a wave of military pitching and innovation events. Their most recent book, Burn-In, released in 2020, contains another round of eerie scenarios and predictions that are rapidly coming true. Today we'll talk about the most cutting-edge technology shaping the military, and how they're likely to affect future warfare forever. Peter Singer and August Cole, welcome to the show.

August Cole 0:57

Great to be here.

Peter Singer 0:58

Thanks so much for having us.

Hope Hodge Seck 0:59

You've now as a team written two books predicting the future, or at least a future, for the military and defense. You've made a lot of predictions along the way, backed meticulously by reporting and science, with lots of endnotes and citations. I'll ask individually for each of you, which prediction have you been most amazed to see come true? And let's go ahead and start with August.

August Cole 1:23

In writing both Ghost Fleet and Burn-In, our goal was to create a vision of the future that was credible, right, based on real-world research. And yet within that, right, as you said, you know, we are trying to conjure up this this vision of the future that it seems like it's credible, but also it's going to stretch people's imagination. Within Ghost Fleet, you know, one of the really important, I think, things that we were thinking about when the book was written, which is, you know, a couple of years before it came out in 2015 was really like the assertiveness that China is going to be demonstrating not only in its own area of influence in the Pacific, but globally. And you know, that's less a technological waypoint, but one that I think is probably as significant or more particularly looking at like how they're spending on defense, the privatization of the PLA, you know, within the kind of political military relationship there. So I think in Ghost Fleet for me, just feeling like having had some time to think since the book came out about how that prediction, if you want to call it that, it's coming true. In Burn-In, I think having you know, written a book that depicted a lot of the technological transformation ushered in by COVID so much faster in many cases, than people even in the industrie -- the remote work, online shopping, etc. -- have predicted, has been really, really interesting to see. Because there are societal implications, especially national security ones too. And so that acceleration of everything from the virtualization of really critical parts of society, and all the vulnerabilities that that induces and brings forth, you know, seem to be something that we felt like, or I felt like at least, you know, we had some runway before we really had to confront. And, you know, in the last 12 months, we've seen that that moment is already here, and in fact, we're already falling behind.

It's been remarkable how we've been kind of landed in a post-apocalyptic future in 2021. And a whole range of scenarios now seem more plausible. Peter, can I ask you the same question, which predictions have you been most surprised to see come true?

Peter Singer 3:22

You know, it's interesting. What we're after with these books is what we call useful fiction. And it's a combination of nonfiction research. So we're hoping to share important data on everything from, OK, how does AI work, to as August mentioned, here's how you need to think about the future of geopolitics. So in some ways, it's a cross of explanation and prediction, in certain situations, you know, there's things that we're not saying, it will be this specific scenario, but rather, we're using that scenario to explain how something works. But then we're adding in that dose of scenario, that dose of fiction we sometimes think of it is the equivalent of sneaking fruit and veggies into a smoothie for policymakers and readers who are, you know, not going to read that PowerPoint or that white paper, but they can get the good stuff this way. You know, so if science fiction is the milkshake and you know that chalky breakfast diet drink is the white paper, we're after that thing in the middle. So I would hit two things. And one is to ping off of what August said, I think what I'm most proud of from Ghost Fleet is how we laid out in it a series of threats. You go back in time, we were talking about the dangers of not just cyber threats, but within the supply chain, and how this would hit everything from weapon systems like F-35 to critical infrastructure. There's a series of these that have played out in reality. But I think what I'm most proud of is that there are certain things in Ghost Fleet that won't come true because of Ghost Fleet.That is, senior leaders read it and said, Is this true? Could this happen? And then they sent their staff off to, you know, go find out. And they said, Yeah, it could. And then they put into place policies that will prevent that from happening. So in many ways, is kind of the parallel of an intelligence game, you know, the best kind of prediction, if you're working intelligence is the one that you keep from coming true. So the supply chain security one is one that I'm particularly proud of, obviously, that that problem has not gone away. But you know, we paid attention to it, and I think highlighted it for people in a way that drove a certain kind of activity. In the more recent book, Burn-In, which was really trying to be a primer of the next generation of technology change, what's going on in AI and the Internet of Things. Gosh, the last year, we've seen so much in the book that we were playing out as dystopian actually come true. And it was everything from technical side, the hack of a water system where you know, the hacker is not stealing information, but changing the chemical levels to poison it. We had a scene in the book that that played out. And of course, you know, if you follow the news, it happened in Florida just a couple weeks ago, to we thought we had these really dystopian scenes of a riot on the National Mall, to a high militarized wall thrown up around the White House, to riot cops gathered around the base of the Lincoln Memorial. These were our dystopian scenes that we, you know, conceived of circa 2019. As like, don't let this stuff happen. And then, you know, it plays out in 2020. So it's funny, several people kind of push back the more recent book, and they're like, Hey, guys, your stuff keeps coming true, including the bad stuff. Can you write romantic comedies next?

Hope Hodge Seck 7:02

Oh, my goodness, I have chills as you're talking about that. to back up a little bit, could you go into more detail about one or two of the cases where a senior military leader has read your book and then kind of taken it for action and made a practical change or redirected energy?

Peter Singer 7:21

I'll hit that. We had a series of this impact that play out and all sorts of different venues. And, you know, let me just kind of pull back on this and say, it's been incredibly, just thrilling for August and I, we both come out of the nonfiction world. And we still play in that, you know, I've written a series of books on the different military reading lists, on robotics, to cyber to social media. August was the defense beay reporter for Wall Street Journal, you know, that inspiration on the F-35 and the supply chain. I mean, he was the guy who broke the story on hacks of the F-35. Back in the day. So we came out of that world. And yet, it's the useful fiction side that's had the most impact in our careers. And it's everything from you know, anecdotes of two, four stars share this one with us, where they're meeting in the tank, the conference room inside the Pentagon, and one of them yawns. And the other says, you know, Are you tired? He says, I was up late at night last night, reading this book kept me up, and, you know, in a way to keep you up and you know, talks about a certain scenario, and it's something that played out in Ghost Fleet. Whoa, could that really happen? And they actually tasked their officers to go off, and could this really happen? They included the footnotes in the book. So here's the data on it, we investigate further. Yes, it could happen. Let's prevent that. Ghost Fleet spawned three different investigations, both within DoD and GAO. There's a $3.6 billion Navy program called Ghost Fleet on unmanned systems. They gave us $0 for it. But you know, so there's been those kind of stories. We've had officers reach out a unit in Hawaii that said, you know, we built a training exercise around a scenario in the book. There were changes in the Army captain's training that came out of it. But again, those are like the specific policies, what we hope is more just helping people to understand larger trends. To put some hard data on you, 91% of leaders say, hey, AI's the most important new technology out there. Fourteen percent of leaders say, I understand how it works, the ways that it's going to be used. And the reality is, most of them are not going to go read a white paper on AI. But if they read Burn-In, they get the entertainment of the novel but they also walk away from it knowing OK, here's how AI works. Here's the way that it might be used by everyone from Amazon to Special Forces, here are some of the dilemmas that come out of it like algorithmic bias. So you're going to learn that and you'll enjoy it along the way. We've been able, despite it being the middle of a pandemic, we've shared that that insight, we've talked to groups about Burn-In that range from, you know, up to CIA, joint chiefs, Allied militaries, that ranged from, you know, Britain to Australia, to Canada, to multiple members of the new cabinet. I even got the opportunity to brief Biden himself. This is before the book came out, but it was during the period of the research for it. So this strangeness, of work for a novel leading to real world explanation, and you know, so hopefully all these people, whether it's, you know, young lieutenants, all the way up to members of the Cabinet, will walk away from it a little bit more informed understanding key issues, and that's really exciting. But also, oh, by the way, even if they're not, hopefully just people are entertained. We love our characters, there are kids, and we really want people to meet Lara Keegan, the dastardly villain -- Keegan's the hero, is the former Marine, we want to learn about our partner, the dastardly villain, so as much as you want to share the insight, you also just want people to get that escape to enjoy it.

Hope Hodge Seck 11:12

Love that.

August Cole 11:14

There's an aspect of this too, you know, where in working on, you know, a fiction project, you're using storytelling, to connect with people. And so, when you see signs that it's working, which I think every writer is always trying to understand, how can I have an effect. And I think, for me, personally, and I speak for Pete too, our work is very much written with that intent. If I can say that short story I've written or a novel or, you know, some, some workshop, it's helped somebody think, with new tools, right, to anticipate a future threat to make sure that something that they envisioned doesn't actually happen. That's like a successful outcome. And absolutely, writing something entertaining is important, because one of the most important, really important rules in writing, I think, one is like, get your draft done. And secondly, is get your reader to the end of what you've written. And the way that manifests is like, in the Pentagon, I just was talking to someone last week, and they're telling me how people are using "Ghost Fleeted" as a verb, like, you know, "Don't get Ghost Fleeted." You know, don't get hacked, don't let your supply chain get owned. Similarly, you know, a couple years ago, when Gen. Scott Miller was at Fort Benning maneuver Center of Excellence, he was telling us when the captain's there, you know, you got to Ghost Fleet up your briefs, right, like, give me some narrative, give me some, you know, some fiction in there. And so, those small I think indicators like that, I think, are actually really important than, you know, stepping back to, we certainly are at a moment when these alternative approaches to thinking and writing about the future and sharing ideas are needed more than ever. And so, you know, this phrase FicInt, which is like, you know, a shorthand, if you will, for for kind of what we're talking about here with books, like Ghost Fleet is being used more and more broadly and widely. And that, to me, I think, speaks to the importance of trying to connect with readers who are ultimately writers, across military, in government communities through you know, include allies, because we're trying to come up with these novel ways to think about some of these very complex technological, social, political, and importantly economic trends like Burn-In.

Peter Singer 13:10

Hope, can I share with you a specific example of this, it was really fun, but also I think shows the power of this approach. So with Burn-In and Ghost Fleet, those were, you know, our our projects, we decided the topic of AI was really important or with Ghost Fleet, we decided the topic of thinking about a US China conflict was really important. It's funny, you know, to go back in time when we were doing that, that was an anomaly. You know, it was back in the period of everybody focused on COIN and counterterrorism. Today, of course, we are, of course, US, China. But we had a recent experience that I think illustrates the power of this where the Australian Defence Force, the Australian military, had a white paper on their professional military education strategy plans for the next 10 years. Now, that honestly is kind of a dry topic, but it's a very important topic. And they asked us to transform that project into a visualization, both to get a wider readership for it, but also to help make the case for these kind of needed changes. As you know, we have the world around them swirling of, you know, new defense needs and education, new technology, lso we took that dry paper, turned it into a short story. But it's a short story that baked into it are the key themes of their paper. So the scenario is, you follow a young officer from her time in War College to her time out on, you know, an exciting mission, but along the way baked into it are 37 tidbits of everything from you know, what is virtual reality and distance learning going to do to professional military education, to what's next in Chinese drone tactics. But what was exciting about this package is not only that it get a wider readership than you would normally have with, you know, a strategy paper for PME. But it was read all the way up to the level of their chief of their defence force, who actually attended an event for the launch of it. And to me, that's that, that crystallizes the power of bringing together narrative prediction, but also doing it with a purpose, you know, to what August was saying, you know, you we had an audience in mind to influence in mind, and you could bring it together on a topic is dry is, frankly, professional military education reform.

Hope Hodge Seck 15:42

And the military actually has a tendency to make even very interesting topics and technology is boring. So it's very important to have the antidote to that. August, I did want to return to something you said early on, about how the pandemic has really boosted or accelerated a lot of different technologies in the way that we use them. And specifically for the military, can you go into detail in some ways that you're seeing that happen?

August Cole 16:11

Well, it's always for me, it's something that I'm looking for, which is trends in civilian society that are changing how conflict is being carried out. And I guess, you know, in a society like ours, the military, of course, reflects civilian society first, because we're an all-volunteer force. And at the same time, a lot of the challenges that American society is grappling with are in effect becoming the military has challenges. You know, the recent standout to talk about domestic extremism, I think, is a really significant one, that the pandemic has revealed faultlines in the US that are going to be something we're wrestling with through the 2020s and into the 2030s. You know, this is very much what Burn-In was about, like wrestling with these forces that are being exacerbated by you know, economic dislocation, changes of people's position in society, through elements often algorithmically driven, out of their control. And so, you know, this, this downside, or this risk factor, I think, is one of the byproducts of the pandemic that that our military has to think about. Because it isn't, you know, of course, tied to the transition that our society has in its economy, in other parts of society around technological change. But when I think too, about just stepping back and looking at the shift in civilian society and government to remote work is extraordinary. And what that means for the way people share and communicate and work together is fantastically useful, in many cases, for stress-testing the system that we have in a great power, or big war context, whatever label you want to put on it, you know. A distributed society, theoretically, should be one that is more resilient in this in this regard, the ability to mobilize and create national intent, if not will, is going to be vital, you know, for the kind of contest that our national defense strategy is potentially envisioning. At the same time, I, you know, I'm an optimist who stares into the abyss, right. And I'm also incredibly worried by our inability at certain critical moments to kind of overcome some of those challenges, particularly the political level, where there's a lot of exploitation of the division in our society. Now, that's just not going to work if we're in the kind of military scenarios that we're seeing. And so the partisanship that we've seen in the midst of this horrendous pandemic, over half a million Americans have died, is something that is also you know, elemental. And so it is less of a technological question at the moment to me than one of looking at some of the structural aspects that tech is a part of. There was a tweet I saw this morning from Sam Bender, who's one of my favorite CNA analysts, about a French experiment using three different kinds of robots with like a squad level. And I do think that the, you know, rise of experimentation with robotics that we've seen during the pandemic, you know, whether it's everything from the kind of normalization of, you know, bots that check temperatures or sanitising, especially at the retail level, at scale, like an Amazon is also going to have ripple effects. And so, you know, for the corners of the military that don't see this as the future or aren't willing to apply a lot of these kind of larger concepts of operations, if you will, around human-machine teaming and robotics, or even just software efficiency, not even to the most lethal or the toothier end of the force structure, but the back end, I think, are really going to be missing out in some very transformative innovation. And so I think some of that positional shift is underway because of the pandemic, unfortunately, in part because we've been forced to live the reality of the next decade a little bit earlier than maybe wanted.

Hope Hodge Seck 19:34

Peter, do you have any thoughts to add to that?

Peter Singer 19:37

Absolutely. I think what the pandemic has done, has surfaced pre-existing divisions, sharpened them, as well is accelerated all sorts of different trends, including technological trends, both in the U.S., but also the acceptance of them. So you know, let's take as August hit the robotics. Too much of the discourse about robotics is the killer robots narrative, lethal autonomous weapon system and that, you know, especially on the military side, that's where much of the policy debate and discussion is. It's actually why for Burn-In, the subtitle is "A novel of the real robotic revolution." It's a bit of a push back against that it's the idea that none of the know it's you know, maybe one day, we're gonna have to figure out how to fight, you know, killer robots. But in our lifetime, it's more about an industrial revolution. And that includes on the military side. So you think about logistics. Logistics in everything from automating warehouses -- We've got a scene in the book that references one of those technologies that was already in development, the effect of the pandemic is that it's accelerated the rollout of that, because the lesson that most corporations took from this is a, the more that we can automate. It's not just labor savings, it's whenever there's the next pandemic, we don't have to have the sort of cease in operations so that they can frame automation on the warehouse side, and the delivery side as both cost savings but also public health measures, continuitive operations, same thing on the military. And when I say delivery, it's everything from, you know, running the warehouse, loading the truck, to the pointy end of the spear in terms of the delivery all the way to the end user. So you know, we had in the opening scene of the book, the characters are standing out, you stand outside Union Station in DC, and you kind of showing that it's a little bit futuristic, a wheeled delivery robot drives by on the sidewalk doing its food delivery. Well, guess what, that was a test system. If you live in Washington, DC, that system is operating right now delivering groceries in Dupont Circle. It's also operating in Michigan, and California, to aerial delivery of food, and even medicine. All this played out during this period. Drones have been used to deliver vaccines, deliver test kits and results. So in all that, you know, the logistics side of the military, complete change. Or as August hit, distance work. We've all had that kind of, you know, pullback, and I think I will say this, a lot of the DoD leadership thinks it's going to go back to normal after this man. I mean, you're we are not going back distance work won't be at the same levels. But it's definitely not going back to the way it was previously, we've shown that we can do it. It's also shown that a lot of people prefer it. I saw one data point that 88% of Pentagon employees said they were more or just as productive working remotely.

Hope Hodge Seck 22:46

I think you read that in, I'm happy to say.

Peter Singer 22:49

Yes, let's give a toot-toot for the the horn there. And so you know, we're not going to see that go back. But then we're going to be other areas where it actually goes beyond where we were before. So think about remote healthcare. On the civilian side, that industry, in its own projections, basically thought that it would take 10 years to get to the use, that happened in the first six months of the pandemic. So they thought it would take about 10 years to reach where in six months to happen. So you think about the military side, we're gonna see that rollout as well for both active duty to veterans remote health care's where it's moving towards. But I love what you know, August brought up of don't just think about this specific the service, think about the ripple effects of that of you know, what does it do to the organization, the office experience? What does it do to the end user, the patient who's receiving that health care? What about the person who's working in that role? How did they not just think about their team? How do they think about themselves? And you know, does it alter their worldview, their politics? You know, these are all the sort of next effects of this to come.

Hope Hodge Seck 24:03

That's just fascinating. And it's really hard to imagine these changes happening organically without without some kind of crisis like we've seen. I'd like to go into a little bit of lightning round. And, Peter, we can start with you. As I said, I have observed that the US military has an extraordinary ability to take these really interesting and significant technologies, and talk about them in a very mundane, generic way until everyone's eyes glaze over. You know, so I hear all the time about cyber and additive manufacturing, and they're all really neat things. And like you said, you need kind of like the scenarios to really bring it alive. So I wanted to run through a couple of sort of the most prominent emerging technologies and the exciting places that you see them going particularly in a military context. So let's start with 3D printing, or additive manufacturing.

Peter Singer 25:01

3D printing is exciting to me. And I use it as an example of, it's gonna sound weird, but it's like the parallel to the Blitzkrieg. So the idea of 3D printing is it's bringing together disruptive change in both the hardware space and software space. So it's the magic of bringing those both together much like, you know, the Blitzkrieg was bringing together air power, new revolutionary technology of the tank and wireless communication. That's the magic of it. 3D printing, like every other technology used for both good and ill. So it potentially alters the entire way we think about logistics units, being able to create their own spare parts, takes us back to the definition of an arsenal. An arsenal used to be where militaries made their own weapons, then, you know, 1800s -- no, private sector is going to make our weapons and the arsenal's just where we store it. So it offers that huge amount of change. However, it also offers it to adversaries. And we have already seen groups that range from drug cartels using 3D printing for smuggling to 3D printing, ghost gun factories in the UK, making your own untraceable weapons, that's a cool thing that pops up in Burn-In, to China has 3D-printed tools in this space, which of course, you know, if you're thinking great power conflict, but also cool sci-fi like scenarios, you could just run wild possibilities with it.

Hope Hodge Seck 26:38

How about, and this is for August, manned-unmanned teaming,

August Cole 26:44

This is one of the kind of grail technologies, right that's out there. And, you know, you can look at some of for example, the, you know, air combat expressions of it like the Loyal Wingman. But I feel like fundamentally, you're talking about, you know, conventional planes, just one as a pilot one doesn't. What gets really interesting, I think, is when you start to get into the aspects around miniaturization, you know, so it's not so much your heroic soldier with its loyal robot dog, but imagine, you know, a soldier with 1,000 dogs that are as big as his finger or her finger, that aspect of swarm that is, you know, a fusion of human and machine is going to be really, really interesting to see and probably more applicable, if you step back. This, I think, ties into robotics too, you know, a lot of the dynamic is still focused around the conventional platforms, if you will, just with fewer people inside them. The future of like military robotics is probably going to be very diminutive and small. In Burn-In, our starring robots, TAMS is you know, about size of a child. And there's a lot of reasons for that. And typically, if you look at like the priority environments, that like the US Army's focusing on say, underground or dense urban areas, you know, having big stuff is a liability. Having small things that are attritable and disposable is going to be critical. And so to me, you know, that's a really, I think, important aspect of it, you know, but fundamentally, you know, whether whether the the size is ultimately determinative of the use, it really comes down to like, you know, human being able to trust, right, that that machine or algorithm is going to do exactly what was intended. You know, there's a whole host of issues that are wrapped up in that everything from software designed to countermeasures. But fundamentally, as we see these fielded more and more and less experimental capabilities, we're going to get a better sense of whether it is actually a viable future. Because I don't know necessarily either that we can assume that organizations like our own armed forces are going to figure it out on the first go-round, or the second. The imperative is to do so. But I don't think we want to take that for granted either.

Hope Hodge Seck 28:42

What do you think it will take to get that trust factor in place?

August Cole 28:47

Trust this is predicated on so many different elements. I think, first, you have to start with experimentation. And, you know, getting a lot of data. There's both an analytical and an emotional aspect of trust, you know, the second is, I think, understanding that a confidence level, you know, comes from a proximity to the technology itself. So allowing, for example, our most junior soldiers, sailors, Marines, airmen, to experiment and to own these, these these elements. I mean, one of the ideas I had was kind of derived from that Tamagotchi toy, you know, from like, a generation ago. Why don't young Marines, for example, who are part of a force that is trying to radically transform itself, why aren't they issued or allowed to select from an unmanned ground air, you know, undersea or surface thing? You know, it's I don't know, the size of a phonebook, if we remember what those were. And they have to care for it through you know, their their training cycles, and they can modify it and they can fight them, they can do whatever they want with them. That's part of the culture just as they learn to use a weapon. Similarly, I think, you know, that aspect is going to be something that's very difficult bureaucratically to let go of, right you know, the engineering design communities don't want to do that. But I think that's that's great.

Hope Hodge Seck 29:54

This is my robot. There are many like it, but this one is mine. The next technology on my list, for Peter, is artificial intelligence.

Peter Singer 30:04

We're living through not just one of the most important changes in technology, but one of the most important changes in human history when it comes to AI. I mean, in all of our human history, and what kind of distinguishes us from in all the other species is our use of tools. But for the very first time, the tool is not just altering what's in our hands, you know, whether it's picking up a stone or operating a drone remotely flying from Creech Air Force Base, but no, the tool is becoming increasingly intelligent, ever improving, and taking on more and more of the roles of the human themselves. I mean, this is, you know, as I said before, it's an industrial revolution, it's on the parallel of what mechanization did to society and war. But it's maybe beyond that. And that's where, if we think about the US military side, I think we're a little bit in certain areas. When I do talks on this, I'll show a picture of the battleship Arizona from 1939. And it has the flow planes on the back of it and you know, the the battleship captains who had earlier on you said, no, airplanes don't matter, by the 1930s, they're like, yeah, I get it, airplanes matter, they're gonna make my battleship more lethal than it's ever been before. And I've given up valuable budgeted deck space for about four airplanes. So you know, I get it, I get this new technology. And, you know, of course, they really didn't get it, they were changing just enough not to change, they were layering the new technology on to what they're already doing now. And I think that's a lot of what we're doing with AI and unmanned systems right now, in the military week, we think we get it, but we're only changing enough not to change. For the people on the ground forces to have this picture, it's a US Army training exercise from 1931. And it's a machine gun mounted on the back of a horse-drawn wagon, you know, we get it, we get machine guns, just know, they're, they really mean change. So that, to me, is the AI part of it. But I wanted to go back, the key to winning out is, you know, again, to make history parallel is not having, you know, the best tanks or the most of them, it's having your plan having, how is your doctrine, how everything fits together. And at the heart of that is that meaning of trust that you were just asking earlier about, trust has two aspects to it. One is that sort of human, emotional, I trust you. But there's also the engineering definition of trust, which is, it works as expected. So I can, for example, trust that you are a liar. Now that doesn't mean I gut-trust you, but I can operate effectively in a world knowing that you're gonna lie all the time, right? It's the same thing with engineering definition of it, does it work the way that I expect. And the hard part with AI and robotics is that we need both the human gut trust, but we need human and AI, to have the second type, the human has to understand and operate as expected. So too, does the AI have to understand the human and, you know, they have to be able to predict and project what the human wants out of them and how they're going to act. And that that double meaning of trust is something that, you know, I think it's going to define how we use AI in the military, and whether we use it well or not, for obviously, decades to come. And it makes for awesome kind of storytelling, because you get you know, the combination of you know, trust is at the heart of every good novel and war to every you know, buddy cop TV show.

Hope Hodge Seck 33:56

The final technology I wanted to hit on for August is simulations and virtual reality, this is something that the military talks about quite a lot.

August Cole 34:05

Yeah, it's a really interesting thread to pull, you can of course, create synthetic environments, you know, that are rendered realistically. I do think about this maybe a little bit differently in that, you know, when you're looking at a future force that is going to be increasingly you know, software driven, you know, if not, you know, mechanized, that the notion of training and simulation is different than just like putting on a HoloLens and, you know, stalking around a large warehouse that's rendered, you know, in a way that that enables you to recreate a battle of the past. What I think is really interesting on the simulation and modeling side is what we're going to be able to teach machines are faster than what we can pass across, you know, to the human elements of a force, and particularly learning how to use the sorts of operational experiences, past present, and in the modeling sense, even future that can be created through you know, adversarial networks with AI, you know, that can really essentially allow you to fight a million battles. Or, you know, gunpowder ever, like, you know, wafts through the air, you know, that aspect of simulation is really critical, I think to to always kind of remember and the conversations around the way it's being done today. And certainly there is an, you know, an imperative to really focusing on how to train people quickly, but we can't overlook how vital it's going to be to train the next generation of programs themselves, you know, software, meaning AI, in the machines that are powered.

Hope Hodge Seck 35:25

For whoever wants to take this or both, what is the biggest way that the US military gets in its own way in adopting these new technologies or embracing them? And you talked about some of the factors with, with trust with not enough availability for for people to familiarize themselves. But if there's one factor you could isolate, that's really hindering adaptation, what would it be?

August Cole 35:49

One of the bigger challenges, I think, with the current next generation of technologies is simply understanding how to buy them. The difficulties, for example, a backward-looking sense that the US government basically in the defense side has had. Intelligence committees [with] big software implementation projects, you know, shows that doing any of this next generation with far more complicated, far more dynamic systems, and doing so at scale, is going to be really, really difficult, you know, particularly this is a zero-defect, political environment too, like for oversight perspective. And given this potential scale of investment, you know, I'm not saying that's necessarily wrong, but we are going to have to be in a much more permissive, I think, and risk-oriented approach to acquisitions. And maybe this is my old defense industry reporter hat. But just seeing how we are going to be I think ill-equipped to acquire, you know, what we need in the current system, and working again, in a universe of companies, and interests, right, that are predicated on a very platform-driven commercial model, I think is going to be something that is going to pose a lot of challenges and roadblocks. And that, of course, you know, that affects the customer, so to speak, from, from an industry point of view, and from the, say, the Army, being able to identify, you know, the technologies it needs. There is also that tension, too, between being open to what industry can offer as well. And I'm not saying that one side in that relationship, you know, needs to come with a complete set of expectations and understandings about the future, because that's not actually how it works. That's to be successful. But I think certainly being open to, you know, very different acquisition paradigms, really thinking about the business model consequences, and how to incentivize, you know, people who aren't part of the traditional players to be in that in that space. And we may see more of that out of necessity, particularly as the threat on the software side, you know, from from countries like China, and on the AI side, from countries like Russia, you know, begins to force us to act. Again, budget is everything, too. I mean, our AI budget in the US on defense spending is not very aggressive. And so it's hard to kind of see it as a real priority until, for example, some of those numbers change.

Peter Singer 37:46

1,000% agreement with August on that. Another one I would put on top, and it's interesting, it's not just an issue for defense, but it's also in public health. We Americans don't do a good job of learning lessons from others and applying them into our own policy, public health. There are clearly better ways to go after the pandemic, the US is not the shining example of it, there was no lack of warning, there was no lack of information, there was no lack of budget, it was just not applying the lessons of nations who handle it better. It's the same thing. When we think about warfare, go back to IEDs and or Iraq and Afghanistan, we acted like it was some kind of, you know, new thing, new challenge. And yet, this was an old technology that been used in lots of other spaces, or the use of unmanned systems by ISIS. You know, we had years of war, and you had seen it play out in Lebanon. And yet when it's used against us, we're like, ah, where did this come from? And if we look around today, the same phenomena is playing out whether it's different ways of using unmanned systems, the ways that the Israelis use them, disposables, as far back as 1982, the Turks and their proxies used them the same way and the Libyan civil war, to really great and I think for a lot of people pretty shocking effectiveness in the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia. That's an example of a very different kind of use of unmanned aerial systems. Or to your earlier question about AI. The PLA certainly has equally recognized the importance of AI, but appears to be going after it in a different kind of manner. So to echo what August was saying about training for them, their leadership, the magic moment with an AI was the game of Go. And when an AI beat the best human overall at Go, and all the people were, Oh, that's like what happened in chess. But for them, it was not that, it was how it did it. It was that the AI won by using moves that no human had conceived of in the literally thousands of years that humans have been playing Go. So for them, that was the magic moment, or to the size question that we were talking about earlier, while the US military is for the most part moving towards kind of the larger-size systems, you know, the robotic wingmen and the like, there's some writing and PLA military journals that, you know, they say in terms of the translation is the new concepts of war. The rough quote is that the future of war, the small, but many will defeat the large, but few. Who do they think the large but few user is, I think that's us. And so I would just say, as an overall, we need to do a better job of kind of looking out there, how are other nations coming up with new concepts, and in certain situations, we got to do a better job of applying them.

Hope Hodge Seck 40:46

So that's what's next for the military. What is next for you all, either together or individually? So are there any new collaborations in the work or FicInt that I can look forward to reading?

August Cole 41:01

One of the things that I've been working on is, you know, this aspect of using the same approaches to go sleep and burnin, as he said earlier with, you know, other military groups, you know, the Australian Defence College, in this piece that we wrote, we're trying to really kind of kickstart a different kind of conversation about PME. And so by really showing, you know, what the future of not only PME, but the operational implications of it, you know, good hold was a really good example of that. And that's very much you know, where our energies are going is working with different groups, the US and allied communities, you know, on these kinds of projects, and what's, you know, heartening to see is being able to, you know, share these things widely, right, these all end up in the open domain, so far, and that, I think, fundamentally speaks to the power of this useful fiction approach, which is trying to connect as many people as possible together, you know, through these kinds of narratives.

Peter Singer 41:52

What's been fun about it is, in some situations, it's us taking their ideas, their strategy papers, their trend reports, and turning them into narratives, you know, whether it was with the Australians or we did a project with NATO, another one with us, Congress had helped visualize a strategy paper on cybersecurity. And then in other situations, it's actually been us helping to mentor and teach other people how to do it. So we've run training exercises, or you know, basically called the executive education, short courses for groups that ranged from the Air Force's futures team, to one-star generals, and Senior Executive Service. And, you know, it's funny, everybody that will go into like, I can't do narrative, I can't do forecasting. And then by the end, they're producing these awesome ideas that, you know, I'm jealous of. But the whole, the whole point of it is not just to be creative, it goes back to where we started the conversation. It's for them to get their own skill set. Both projecting, but also explaining, not just if in fiction formats, but you know, we all need to do a better job of explaining and communicating whether it's in a speech, whether it's in a memo, and the skill is cut across that. So it's been a lot of fun to play, not just on the creator side, but on the mentor side with these groups.

Hope Hodge Seck 43:18

That's phenomenal. Well, thank you so much for your time for bringing me up to speed on all these things. I've loved reading your work, and I hope to continue to follow it. Thank you so much for being here.

Peter Singer 43:31

Absolutely. Thank you.

August Cole 43:33

Thanks for the interest and for having us on the podcast.

Hope Hodge Seck 43:43

Thanks once again for joining us here at Left of Boom. This is our 20th episode, and it has been a true honor to have these conversations and dive deeper into the most fascinating and transformative topics affecting military life. There's much much more goodness to come. In our next episode. For example, we'll be looking at the Marines United social media scandal that forced a service-wide reckoning and what has changed in the four years since then, please take time to rate and review Left of Boom wherever you listen, and stay subscribed so you don't miss a future episode. And remember, you can find all the news and information affecting the military community every single day at

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