Home > Uncategorized > Does science fiction drive real technological development?

Does science fiction drive real technological development?

November 28, 2007

First, go watch this video at Greg Laden’s blog, of a man exercising a prototype exoskeleton.  Take special note of the enclosed mock-ups and the description of its fine control. 

Then read the following excerpt from Robert Heinlein’s 1959 novel, Starship Troopers:

But I do want to mention a little about powered suits, partly because I was fascinated by them and also because that was what got me into trouble.  No complaints – I rated what I got.

An M.I. lives by his suit the way a K-9 man lives by and with and on his doggie partner.  Powered armor is one-half the reason we call ourselves “mobile infantry” instead of just “infantry.”  Our suits give us better eyes, better ears, stronger backs (to carry heavier weapons and more ammo), better legs, more intelligence (“intelligence” in the military meaning; a man in a suit can be just as stupid as anybody else – only he had better not be), more firepower, greater endurance, less vulnerability.

A suit isn’t a space suit – although it can serve as one.  It is not primarily armor – although the Knights of the Round Table were not armored as well as we are.  It isn’t a tank – but a single M.I. private could take on a squadron of those things and knock them off unassisted if anybody was silly enough to put tanks against M.I….

There are a dozen different ways of delivering destruction in impersonal wholesale, via ships and missiles of one sort or another, catastrophes so widespread, so unselective, that the war is over because that nation or planet has ceased to exist.  What we do is entirely different.  We make war as personal as a punch in the nose.  We can be selective, applying precisely the required amount of pressure at the specified point at a designated time – we’ve never been told to go down and kill or capture all left-handed redheads in a particular area, but if they tell us to, we can.  We will…

No need to describe what it looks like, since it has been pictured so often.  Suited up, you look like a big steel gorilla, armed with gorilla-sized weapons…

But the suits are considerably stronger than a gorilla.  If an M.I. in a suit swapped hugs with a gorilla, the gorilla would be dead, crushed; the M.I. and the suit wouldn’t be mussed.

The “muscles,” the pseudo-musculature, gets all the publicity but it’s the control of all that power which merits it.  The real genius in the design is that you don’t have to control the suit; you just wear it, like your clothes, like skin.  …

Two thousand pounds of it, maybe, in full kit – yet the very first time you are fitted into one you can immediately walk, run, jump, lie down, pick up an egg without breaking it… and jump over the house next door and come down to a feather landing.

The secret lies in negative feedback and amplification…

- Robert Heinlein, Starship Troopers, p. 79, 80, 81, emphasis mine

Despite its technological prescience, Starship Troopers is a political novel.  (Seriously, it was a crime to apply that title to the scarcely-related piece of cinematic drek spewed out of Hollywood.)  And Heinlein’s work is full of bang-on technological predictions like this.  Amazing what happens when you combine legendary fiction-writing skills with real-world knowledge of physics, chemistry, biology, military culture, etc.  He took the trouble to know what the hell he was talking about and it shows.

Anyway, I have a hunch that real military visionaries read that novel and have been salivating over the strategic possibilities for decades, waiting for it to be possible.  What you see in the video is a prototype but there’s no mystery where it’s going.

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  1. Ted
    November 29, 2007 at 07:53 | #1

    …but there’s no mystery where it’s going.

    Ok, color me stupid, but where’s it going?

    Will kids in kindergarten and other hapless civilians be wearing this type of technology? Because assymetricity has a way of working in both directions.

  2. November 29, 2007 at 08:06 | #2

    You get to choose your own colors.  It’s going in the direction of armored exoskeletons being military hardware.  Expect big research contracts, prototypes, congresscritters calling for funding to companies in their districts, and some truly frightening weaponry issuing from the whole process way behind schedule and over budget. 

    Also expect insurgencies to work out counter techniques.  I imagine a shaped charge would be as big a problem for one of these apes as it is for a tank.  Only difference is the guy in the suit can see through walls, probably to some extent below the ground, and right through people’s clothes.

  3. November 29, 2007 at 08:15 | #3

    Heinlein was a brilliant man…a scientist of a type as well as a political scientist. He foresaw the work being done now with DNA and gene splicing as well as the dangers of the socialist far left and the religious right wing. He was also no great fan of democracy…

  4. November 29, 2007 at 08:57 | #4

    I like a lot of Heinlein’s work…most in fact, but I count this book as one of my favorites.

    I agree that the movie was a terrible representation of the book.  It does so poorly that I ended up resenting the movie. 

    I think though, that I would have liked the movie just fine, if they hadn’t called it “Starship Troopers”. 

    They got almost everything wrong, from the political message to the technology.  It was worse than arrogance to say it was based on the book.

  5. Ted
    November 29, 2007 at 09:46 | #5

    You get to choose your own colors.  It’s going in the direction of armored exoskeletons being military hardware.  Expect big research contracts, prototypes, congresscritters calling for funding to companies in their districts, and some truly frightening weaponry issuing from the whole process way behind schedule and over budget.

    Also expect insurgencies to work out counter techniques.  I imagine a shaped charge would be as big a problem for one of these apes as it is for a tank.  Only difference is the guy in the suit can see through walls, probably to some extent below the ground, and right through people’s clothes.

    The issue is that when technology is asymmetrical, the opposition responds in kind.

    If/when we have this technology, would we be prone to use it unilaterally against an opponent less equipped. My answer: yes, indeedy. Since it equates to a turkeyshoot and slaughter, the opposition responds by attacking our economy, the civilians, the malls, the hospitals, the bridges—the infrastructure that supports the war effort. They don’t solely respond to the military, because that’s the fight they lose—and if they were to engage the well equipped and—robotized—military, they’d be defeated; it would be a terrible strategy from their point of view. While I’m safe in my ape-suit, they’re over here wiping out kindergartens.

    So an asymmetric fight involves our well equipped and technologically superior military against some POS plot of land with the attendant fog of war (understandable) mistakes and the inevitable lack of control of collateral damage, against their will to strap on a bomb and give us the finger.

    And two things leads me to think that the asymmetrically challenged would never run out of volunteers to strap on. 1), the desire for revenge and self-determination, and 2) the sheer population of the world and the worth of lives in any specific POS country, where it’s cheaper to strap on a vest than to get the US to arm them, or for them to develop competing high-technology.

    The world of Heinlein was entertaining; but technology needs to ask, “…and then what”? In a world where borders should be disappearing because we need to pool our scarce resources in order to utilize them better and more justly, we engage in further exercises of unilateralism. Uh, Ok. How’s that working out for you so far?

    I know that it’s in vogue to assign a mystic quality to military strategists—certainly when coupled with our penchant for secrecy, our budget, and the division of labor that citizens of democracy assign to warfighters.

    But here’s my advice (bad as it may be): When you’re invited to sit at the big table, it’s better not to be in awe of the people sitting there. They probably are a lot like you—with a stupid kid making bad choices, with a cheating wife, parent with Alzheimer’s, need for mortgage payment impinging on their ability to be oracle-ish. Best to treat DARPA, intel and militarism (MICFIC) as a pack of liars, beholden to special interests and doing individual things mostly for their own self-interests.

    Remember when in 2002-2003 we were told, “Yes, well sure, we know where the WMDs are. That’s what we do. We know secrets. You don’t. So stay out of issues that don’t concern you.”

    $1.5 trillion later, I’m not sure I believe them any longer. Gosh I hope that military technologists and strategists aren’t so enamored with Heinlein as you think they are, because if they are we are truly and well f*cked.

  6. November 29, 2007 at 10:08 | #6

    Ted you just explained what I have been trying to explain to Pro-Iraq War people for a long time.

  7. November 29, 2007 at 10:35 | #7

    GUYK: “Heinlein was a brilliant man…a scientist of a type as well as a political scientist…”

    I’d have a tough time identifying my favorite Heinlein novel.  Maybe Moon Is A Harsh Mistress but there are so many great ones.  Not necessary that I agree with his politics to enjoy it immensely.  I especially like how he tried to make his stories as correct as possible.  For instance he and his wife worked out real astrogation coordinates on big sheets of butcher paper on their kitchen table, just to lend authenticity to short stories.

    Ted: “I hope that military technologists and strategists aren’t so enamored with Heinlein as you think they are…”

    Unfortunately I really think they are that enamored of Heinlein, and that we are well and truly, because they don’t ask “Then what?”  It is no accident that the enemy in Starship Troopers were intelligent insects – not human – so Heinlein could postulate victory through annihilation of the other.  Unfortunately our leaders have a tough time distinguishing entertaining fiction from reality.

    Does it occur to anyone that our current foes are still pissed off about stuff that happened in AD 1258?  We have got to ‘attack’ the problem from some other angle.  Or maybe perpetual attack is what our leaders want.

  8. Ted
    November 29, 2007 at 11:12 | #8

    I really think they are that enamored of Heinlein, and that we are well and truly, because they don’t ask “Then what?”

    They don’t ask for a reason: because it’s intentionally piecemealed out so that each person makes only a small widget that makes up the dangerous whole. The dangerous whole gets assembled later by our geopolitical betters when they get out the Milton Bradley “Risk” board game.

    The way to build a really top notch death camp is to spread the contracts around so that the plumbers, the bricklayers, the fencebuilders, the pavers, etc… all get a piece of the prosperity pie. And also not to tell them what they’re building or how it’s going to be used or when it’s going to be used.

    Does the company building the exoskeleton concern itself with ethics? Does the program manager acquiring it for defense? Does the troop that straps it on once he’s there?

    No. We divorce ourselves from the tools and their uses—we build up really nice, expensive toys, and then strategic geopolitical people like Madeleine Albright gets to ask JCS Powell, “What good is it having the most powerful military in the world if you don’t use it?”.

    And she was supposedly a peacenik, but it’s a good question that eventually hits anyone that realizes what percentage of our national budget goes to defense. Very proactive defense.

  9. November 29, 2007 at 11:29 | #9

    Does the troop that straps it on once he’s there?

    I think soldiers do wrestle with ethical questions.  They are put in an impossible situation and most do the best they can with it.  The politicians who made it all happen comfort themselves with slogans, which is not to be confused with wrestling ethics.

  10. November 29, 2007 at 11:59 | #10

    DOF – I can tell you with certainty that some soldiers wrestle with ethical concerns…and some don’t.  Anecdotally I’d say most don’t, at least until after their service.

    I think I’d like it if more did, but our fighting force would certainly be diminished if they considered the broad ethical consequences of their/our actions.

  11. November 29, 2007 at 14:37 | #11

    It’s been my impression that neocons like Dick Cheney are actually proud they are too “tough minded” to consider ethics when making decisions.

  12. November 29, 2007 at 15:27 | #12

    RickU: “I think I’d like it if more did, but our fighting force would certainly be diminished if they considered the broad ethical consequences of their/our actions.”

    I’m not sure they would be diminished; in the long run it’s possible they’d have a lot less to do.  How much of our military budget is devoted to mopping up past animosities?  Ethics is a practical investment in the future.

  13. November 30, 2007 at 06:38 | #13

    I should clarify so I will.  By “diminished” I mean that more soldiers, sailors, and Marines would choose to disobey direct orders, recognizing that those orders are often illegal if they considered the ethics of carrying out those orders.  At that point the service member is usually removed from the force, thereby diminishing the force.

  14. Ted
    November 30, 2007 at 09:47 | #14

    From Wikipedia: Indoctrination -> Recruit Training:

    A significant part of basic training is psychological. The reasoning seems to be that if a recruit cannot be relied upon to obey orders and follow instructions in routine matters—be they folding one’s clothing, standing at attention, paying proper attention to hygiene—it is unlikely that he or she will be reliable in a combat situation, where there may be a strong urge to disobey orders or flee.

    Of greater significance is the obedience of orders rather than fleeing since very seldom is an order to flee given in the US military (considering the technological and maneuver superiority). This equates to an institutional desire to drive out independent ethical thought.

    Approved ethical thoughts are presented through classes on the UCMJ or the laws of land warfare or the warrior’s creed (which used to be the soldier’s creed). Ethics in most cases are inculcated through the presentation that moral ambiguity within the US culture is a fait acompli and does not need further elaboration, unless one subscribes to moral relativism and situational re-evaluation of good and bad.

    Orders received from well educated officer corps are meant to be presented as deliberated issues, and settled by those qualified to render judgment. If we’re killing someone downrange, there MUST be a good reason, otherwise our officers, good, moral and just professionals wouldn’t be telling us to do so.

    The volunteer military accepts the notion of “total institution”. The general public, such as may be in case of draft, does not. Although frontline soldiers in combat may experience ethical challenges, in most cases the primary ethical responsibility is to the soldier to the left and right and will outweigh the dilemma downrange.

    Of course, later one has a chance to ruminate on the ethics of the entire situation, and that’s where the psychological hazards come into play.

  15. james old guy
    November 30, 2007 at 20:14 | #15

    I get the feeling Ted doesn’t think much of our military. Then again I doubt if many of them would think much of Ted.

  16. November 30, 2007 at 20:35 | #16

    He said the army envelopes the soldier’s life, that soldiers pretty much have to trust their commanders on ethical questions, and that soldiers are more ethically responsible (loyal) to each other than to the country they’re invading.  I’d be curious to know what specific parts you feel he’s wrong about, James.

  17. Lucas
    December 1, 2007 at 03:58 | #17

    It will be interesting to see what happens when this technology becomes less expensive and declassified.  Imagine the potential advances in mobility for the elderly and handicapped.  It could also revolutionize certain manual labor jobs—if it could be made cheap enough.  Pretty cool stuff.

  18. December 1, 2007 at 09:15 | #18

    I get the feeling James doesn’t really “READ” what people type. He just makes assumptions about people that challenge his ideology. Age and/or experience is never an excuse to stop learning.

  19. Depressed Ted
    December 1, 2007 at 10:26 | #19

    Oh Noes! The military doesn’t think much of Ted.

    That will surely impact Ted’s self-image negatively.

    Imagine the potential advances in mobility for the elderly and handicapped. It could also revolutionize certain manual labor jobs—if it could be made cheap enough.

    1. Who’ll pay for the handicapped and the elderly to get outfitted? Medicare? Since we don’t need to build handicap accessible facilities, the savings could come from there.

    People live too long as it is. Thankfully, the current sedentary population is working the lifespan gains backwards (last I heard obesity is taking five years off the current generation).

    2. What will 7-8B people do when the robot automation displaces all manual labor?

    To be a credit slave you have to have some potential income.

  20. December 1, 2007 at 11:36 | #20

    Cheer up, Ted!  All the obese huddled masses need is a bit of motivation  :coolgrin:

  21. December 1, 2007 at 11:56 | #21

    Imagine the potential advances in mobility for the elderly and handicapped.

    Even the most severely handicapped person could be helped.  Here’s an early prototype.

    OK seriously, they are working on this at MIT.  If mobility is the only goal, they might be quite unobtrusive.  I fancy the main limitation for both the military and civilian versions would be a good portable power source.  Fuel cell maybe?  Gas up your exoskeleton with ethanol?  Amazingly, the prototype only uses two watts of power in level walking.  That must approach the efficiency of normal human legs. Power consumption would go up a lot when climbing stairs, etc.

    BTW I can think of a couple Heinlein stories featuring disabled people wearing exoskeletons under their clothes.

  22. December 1, 2007 at 18:16 | #22

    Before it was revealed that the military doesn’t think much of Ted, I was thinking along Lucas’ lines.  I could use a more streamlined version … at least the lower limb components. :)

    Eventually this stuff will become smaller, less expensive and very useful.  That is, if the Cheney-types don’t use it to blow us all to hell first.

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