Last year, the international affairs thinktank Atlantic Council made an interesting new hire. Keen to draw on ideas about the future of war from various areas of speculative fiction, the organisation – which advises on global security policy and holds meetings for heads of state and military leaders – announced that game designer Dave Anthony would become a nonresident fellow in its Brent Scowcroft Center. Anthony was, until that point, a writer on the Call of Duty: Black Ops titles.
It will probably seem odd to some people: a writer from gaming’s answer to a Michael Bay popcorn flick, notionally advising policy makers on the future of armed conflict. But Treyarch, the creator of the Call of Duty: Black Ops titles, is very serious about its research. Forthcoming title Black Ops 3 is set 30 years in the future, and involves hi-tech warfare between two new international collectives – Winslow Accord and the Common Defence Pact. Cybernetic enhancement, bio-augmentation and direct neural interfacing between the brains of soldiers and computer networks are all part of the story. And Treyarch claims that all these elements come from stringent analysis of real-life scientific and military advancements.
As the game’s campaign director, Jason Blundell, puts it: “If you think about Treyarch, and the number of people we have here, there’s probably only a few other institutions in the world that have spent this amount of time cross-referencing the different technologies in this sector.”
So here are some of the key technologies and concepts being explored in the game – and where Treyarch got its, sometimes very scary, ideas.
United Nations meeting on lethal autonomous weapons
In the game, players will be facing both intelligent battle robots and fully automated weapons systems, both of which have been given autonomous kill orders – in other words, the ability to target and engage enemies without human input.
It’s something governments and major international organisations are already concerned about. In May 2014, the United Nations hosted a four-day event in Geneva to discuss the ethical ramifications of lethal autonomous weapons (LAWS).
“The people employed to make policy decisions around the world are taking this stuff very seriously,” says Blundell, who told us that Treyarch has spoken to military advisors on this subject. “There’s already an autonomous weapons system in place for military convoys – it’s a simple gun on top of a vehicle, but if it detects a sniper shot, it can use its sensors to triangulate the origin of the bullet and fire in that direction. Right now, there has to be a human to push the button, but that is a trivial step to remove.”
To Blundell, the big facilitator for LAWS is the huge reduction in costs for developing autonomous systems. “With cheap manufacturing, including 3D printing, and the idea of generic artificial intelligence, we’re not far away,” he says. “We touch on this in our story, but it’s becoming cheap enough to manufacture this technology, the chips are so disposable that you can create autonomous bots very cheaply – and these can be used on the battlefield.
“From now on, the evolution of technology will be exponential. It will move faster than legislation can keep up with, it will become cheaper and it will be pervasive. You hear examples of people landing drones on the White House lawn – they’re so cheap, you can go to a shop, buy one and fly it out there. The law can’t move fast enough to prevent that. So when you start talking about bio-augmentation and about changing the capabilities of humans, these are important moral questions because you know the military will be at the forefront of those experiments.”
Bio-augmentation and brain-computer interfacing – the BRAIN initiative
Bio-augmentation or human enhancement, involves the use of various neurotechnologies, including neural implants, to improve the performance of the human mind and body. It’s a key theme in Black Ops 3, with the player joining a team of spec-ops soldiers who have all been augmented to allow them to run faster, jump higher and process battlefield information more quickly. Each soldier is fitted with a Direct Neural Interface (DNI), a sub-dermal technology that connects directly into their brain and spinal column and links them to a computer system. In the game, this manifests as a “tactical mode”, allowing co-op players to share information such as the positions of enemy soldiers or key objective points.
According to Treyarch, the major inspiration here comes from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa), the section of the US Department of Defence responsible for emerging military technologies. “They have a biotechnology office,” says Mark Lamia, Treyarch’s studio head. “Its purpose – and this has been literally stated – is to explore the intersection of biology and physical sciences. It starts with advanced prosthetics and controlling artificial limbs or treating neurological symptoms of people with PTSD. They’re talking about direct neural interfaces to help control those things, but you can see how you get to our fiction very easily. It’s not that far out.
“The Obama administration has commissioned a Brain Research Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) initiative, backed by $300m in funding and supported by Darpa – it is a programme researching a reliable neural interface technology. It’s publicly known that the purpose of this is not fully understood. Some of these things start in a medical setting then go to commercial, but who knows where it goes next?”
Cybernetic enhancements and exoskeletons
In Black Ops 3, players will be able to customise their soldiers with new cybernetic systems, giving them access to enhanced movement abilities such as higher jumps and faster sprinting. Like Sledgehammer, the studio behind last year’s Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, Treyarch has looked into current developments in cybernetic enhancement (the use of machine and computer components to replace human body parts) and robotic exoskeletons.
Exoskeleton systems have been used to help paraplegics gain mobility and to aid Korean dock workers in moving heavy objects. Japanese company Cyberdyne, specialises in medical and rehabilitation exoskeleton research, producing its famed Hal (Hybrid Assistive Limb) robotic technology. But, of course, the military has also been working on this sort of concept for more than 50 years, and the latest example is the United States Special Operations Command’s tactical assault Light operator suit (Talos), which offers physical enhancement as well as ballistics protection and body monitoring. There’s also Lockheed Martin and its HULC program, “a completely un-tethered, hydraulic-powered anthropomorphic exoskeleton that provides users with the ability to carry loads of up to 200 pounds for extended periods of time and over all terrains”.
“We’re starting to integrate this technology into our lives in very interesting ways,” says Blundell. “But as we get more comfortable, that next step isn’t too far out.”
Mind reading and thought control
Black Ops 3 envisions a future in which every soldier’s battlefield experience is beamed instantly to a central control station and to other soldiers – not via helmet cameras, but by direct connection to their brains and optic systems. Once again, this is something already being considered by military researchers.
“Darpa has a programme called Silent Talk,” says Blundell. “It is exploring mind-reading technologies with devices that allow it to pick up electrical signals inside soldiers’ brains and then send them over the internet.” In 2008, Darpa received an initial $4m in funding to start researching the concept of a helmet that uses EEG – electroencephalography, the placing of electrodes on the scalp to pick up electrical impulses – to transmit brain waves, allowing soldiers to communicate with each other via thought alone. This would be a major advantage amid the chaos of battle. “It’d be radio without a microphone,” Dr Elmar Schmeisser, the army neuroscientist overseeing the program, told Time magazine. “Because soldiers are already trained to talk in clean, clear and formulaic ways, it would be a very small step to have them think that way.”
Another aspect that has fascinated Treyarch is the user of brain-computer interfaces to give pilots more intuitive control of their planes, or to allow the remote control of robot soldiers. “For some people, this may all sound ludicrous,” says Lamia. “But last week I read an article talking about a fighter pilot controlling a plane through thoughts.” Indeed, in a recent project at the University of Pittsburgh’s human engineering research laboratory, a quadriplegic woman was able to control a simulation of a F-35 joint strike fighter with her mind. The same research has also produced a mind-controlled robot arm, which allowed highly coordinated movement.
All of which leads us to ...
What Darpa is interested in, though, is the idea of battlefield telepresence. We’re already seeing drones being piloted remotely by human controllers, but a future step could well be remote-controlled robotic soldiers. In 2013, part of Darpa’s $2.8bn budget was allocated to a project entitled Avatar, after the James Cameron movie. The agency said at the time: “The program will develop interfaces and algorithms to enable a soldier to effectively partner with a semi-autonomous bipedal machine and allow it to act as the soldier’s surrogate.”
Darpa already has a potential robotic host for the initiative. Petman (seen in the video above) is a humanoid robot developed by Boston Dynamics and funded by Darpa. The company’s stated goal is to test chemical-protection clothing, and perhaps to develop robots that can help in disasters such as the Fukushima nuclear plant meltdown. But many observers have seen the almost inevitable military implications: in 2013, former intelligence officer Lt Col Douglas A Pryer penned an essay on the rise of killer robots, while Human Rights Watch has written an extensive report warning of a future in which robotic soldiers, either remotely controlled or autonomous, are effectively employed as battlefield terminators.
The geopolitics of resource scarcity
In the background, global climate change is set to play a big part in Black Ops 3. As water becomes more scarce, countries align to protect and exploit natural resources. Consequently, you have powerful new factions in the game, such as the Nile River Coalition, which seeks to control the flow of water. “We’ve looked closely at the geopolitical landscape,” says Lamia. “We’ve taken direction from where global climate change has had a dramatic impact, especially in terms of the scarcity of resources, and we’ll tell that story as part of this world.”
The Nile has, of course, been a major source of geopolitical tension between Egypt and neighbouring countries, and experts say this is set to increase in the 21st century as basic resources become more scare and valuable. The really worrying thing about the future that Treyarch has envisaged after years of reading up on military research is not that there will be robots fighting wars, but that there will be robots fighting wars over access to water.
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