The year is 2056. Decades of war have resulted in constant advances in weapon technology — including one such novelty dubbed the "hypervelocity missile." Moving at six times the speed of sound, these weapons have changed the rules of combat. In order to protect themselves against attacks, armies have designed a sophisticated shield that can protect an entire city. Still it is not impenetrable, and the simmering war worsens when one government tries to break through the shield of another.
What sounds like the premise of a new binge-worthy series is instead the beginnings of an intricate scenario developed by science fiction writers hired by the French military. As Le Monde reported recently, the unusual collaboration between the French Ministry of Defense and the University of Paris Sciences and Lettres (PSL) has just launched the second season of this project.
Science fiction tends to conjure the futuristic and surreal settings of space exploration, extraterrestrial life, and time travel. Fascinating and mindboggingly fun, but not exactly useful in the real world. As an avid reader of science fiction and a student of political science and international relations, I prefer to think of it differently: Almost every scifi tale introduces some kind of scientific invention or phenomenon that changes society in irreversible ways — which doesn't sound so different than something you might find in this morning's headlines.
The efforts like those of the French Defense Ministry raise questions like: How will governments approach a new technology? Some might be diplomatic about it and will want to commence scientific collaborations to discuss the best possible application. But other ill-intending individuals might throw all ethical concerns out the window. And what about the people? Will they be supportive or will they turn on their own rulers?
For now, the French army is devising ways to make the practice as useful as possible: there's a "Red Team" consisting of authors, who have wide freedom in coming up with scenarios. They can put ideas on the table that the French army typically excludes for ethical reasons, such as Autonomous Lethality Weapon Systems (ALWS), or augmented humans.
Infantry battalion commander Jean-Baptiste Colas, 36, explains to Le Monde the goal of this process: "What the Red Team imagines must destabilize us, scare us, blame, or even beat us."
The red team has the option to consult the "Purple Team," which consists of academics working in AI and technology, to make sure their ideas are reasonable and realistic. The military side, or "The Blue Team," provides the finishing touches before the scenarios are officially sequestered with a top secret seal.
The official trailer for the French Defense Military Red Team — Red Team Defense/Youtube
The elected participants were subjected to a thorough investigation to ensure that they did not have any weaknesses that could be exploited by someone from the outside (significant debts, links with a foreign power, etc). The precaution is needed because the teams work with confidential information. "We start with a real threat that the army helps us to make even more plausible, more worrying," explains Xavier Mauméjean, who is part of both teams.
To maintain a somewhat transparent image, a very small fraction of the scenarios is made public. But before they reach our eyes, these scenarios are put under a loop and anything that comes close to reality is removed: people and locations will be replaced by fictional alternatives. When the scenarios are published, the creators go all out: scriptwriters, illustrators, actors, and graphic designers are hired to make the project as attractive as possible. The result is a win-win situation: the public has a new form of entertainment and the army has a fresh set of practice scenarios.
Although mocked by some for this initiative, the army insists that employing science fiction authors is helping them prepare for previously unthought of situations. They say it boosts creativity and makes soldiers and generals more resourceful, something that is needed in an unpredictable world.
The truth is that the practice has long existed, in different forms and sectors. For instance, the famous Frankenstein (1818), a story about a fictionalized scientist obsessed with bringing a monster to life using lightning, was inspired by the limited scientific research into electricity on the human body being done at the time. More than a hundred years after its publication, a young Earl Bakken watched the movie adaptation in 1937. It inspired him to create the first ever battery powered cardiac pacemaker in 1957, a life saving medical device still being used today.
The more "crazy" science fiction out there remains just that: fiction.
Jules Verne's 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, went a step further and indirectly influenced politics and military decisions in the United States. The story is about a group of men who decide to launch themselves to the moon in a cylinder-shaped projectile. This fictional shell has striking similarities to the Apollo 11 command module used to bring the first humans to the moon 104 years later: it was hollow, made mostly of aluminium, crewed by three people, launched from Florida, and it splashed down in the Pacific Ocean. Verne's tale inspired real people to work on the challenges of space travel, eventually prompting the 20th century space race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.
We know now that an all-out space war was avoided due to international space treaties prohibiting the use of outer space for military aspirations. But the years leading up to these events were tense and characterized by politicians frantically debating the influence of this new, potentially disruptive, technology. Not fictional at all!
Instead of hiring science fiction writers, the German military has therefore opted for researching existing literature and in 2018 teamed up with a handful of academics. Their plan is to use novels to pinpoint the world's next potential conflict. As German weekly Die Zeit reports, this collaboration, dubbed "Project Cassandra" after the Trojan priestess of Greek myth who had the gift of foresight, doesn't solely focus on science fiction and future technologies, but takes into account human behavior. They look for social trends, moods, and conflicts that arose in response to political decisions and technological breakthroughs (whether real or fictional).
SF literature, the new Art of War? — Photo: scifi.book.club via Instagram
Jürgen Wertheimer, a literary scholar who set up the project, emphasizes the seismographic function that novels can have and why States should learn to understand it. "There are authors," he said, who "who are extremely sensitive to changes and mood swings in society and put that into words."
Just like the French army's science fiction writers, the German literary academics work with AI. But where the French use AI to improve their scenarios, the Germans are consulted to improve AI. This is because the already existing German AI computer Watson, which is used to predict conflicts, isn't able to read between the lines and pick up on social cues. That's where Wertheimer and his team come in. They look for literature that "hits a nerve," whether it wins prizes or ends up censored. The multi-year analysis ensured that officials can now, with quite a bit of accuracy, predict a conflict five years in advance, instead of just one.
Movies are also a source of inspiration. In fact, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Pentagon reached out to Hollywood filmmakers, such as Die Hard screenwriter Steve de Souza. This was supposedly a reaction to the belief that an attack of this scale could have been anticipated if the CIA had a bit more imagination. The group of screenwriters and filmmakers were commissioned to brainstorm with Pentagon advisors and officials over several days, in a secure location, using declassified intelligence reports. The meeting could have been a movie scene: Souza described how they were sitting in a dark room, being talked to by someone on a screen "like Captain Kirk" from Star Trek. Although the exact content of these sessions is shrouded in secrecy, it is known that they asked for "left-field, off the wall ideas" and participants were encouraged to share the most insane things that came to mind.
The more "crazy" science fiction out there remains just that: fiction. It's highly unlikely that an alien race will destroy our planet because it was blocking plans for a new "hyperspatial express route," as was the case in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Nor is there any real chance of entering a time-traveling war like in This Is How You Lose the Time War. Instead, the apocalyptic scenario we really have to fear can already be seen this summer in (non-fiction) stories of California wildfires and European floods: it's called Climate Change.