Monday, February 12, 2007

Ender's vindication

There’s an interesting article in the current Harper’s about “The Coming Robot Army,” dealing with the increasing presence in the American military of unmanned vehicles. The article’s author, Steve Featherstone, narrates his experiences at a handful of “industry” shows—where engineering firms, large and small, pitch their products to the military. Everything from tank-sized robot weapons platforms to tiny spybots (both airborne and ground-based) is on display, along with promotional videos featuring Full Metal Jacket’s R. Lee Ermy and MacGyver himself, Richard Dean Anderson.

What struck me was the frequent recourse the prostheletizers of robot warfare had to the language of video games when relating the user-friendliness of their machines. “If you can operate a game boy, you’re good,” says one representative. R. Lee Ermy, in full drill sergeant mode in his promo video, screams “The next time you start thinking about telling kids to put away that video game, think again! Some day they could be using those same kinds of skills to run a robot that will save their bacon!”

This made me think of Orson Scott Card’s excellent SF novel Ender’s Game, in which, in which gifted children are recruited early into the military and taught the art of warfare. Ender Wiggin, our protagonist, proves talented beyond the dreams of his mentors and graduates into a specialized form of training, in which he plays simulations of space battles, networked to other children trained at the same academy he attended.

(Warning for those who have not read the novel: I’m about to give away the ending, so if you want to read it—and I recommend that you do—stop reading now).

The simulations get increasingly difficult, with increasingly greater odds against them and an enemy increasingly familiar with Ender & co.’s tactics. Ultimately they face the enemy at their homeworld with a pitifully small fleet against vastly superior enemy numbers. In desperation, Ender sends his fleet in a suicidal attack that destroys the entire alien planet.

The twist is that what Ender took to be a training simulation for when he would command actual fleets from a distance was in fact real—that the ships he and his cohorts commanded were not simulated but actual; and the final, total destruction of the enemy was an actual genocidal (or “xenocidal,” I suppose) massacre.

The point here is that every time I play an online first-person shooter game, I get killed rather a lot—and I suspect that many of the people killing me are all of about twelve years old, kids raised not so much on as in computer and video games, whose intimate familiarity with these virtual environment is second nature … while for me, having grown up with the archaic technology of Space Invaders, ColecoVision and the Commodore 64, the extra split second it takes to be aware of things in those sophisticated virtual worlds is the difference between virtual life and virtual death.

Hence, the insistence of military engineers’ on the Playstation-esque qualities of roboticized warfare makes me think that Orson Scott Card’s dystopian vision was pretty spot on. One of the principal criticisms of the novel was its lack of believability (always a dubious thing when talking about SF, but that’s another discussion), insofar as some readers couldn’t accept the premise of twelve-year-olds exhibiting the kind of expertise as those in the novel. I’m not so sure. In the CGI industry, firms don’t hire computer programmers and train them to be artists—that would be futile. Rather, they hire artists and train them to use computers, because a talent for art is not something that can be taught. If warfare ever does come down to the remote operation of machines from computer terminals, who then becomes the best candidate—the twentysomething soldier relatively new to the intimacies and nuances of cutting-edge technology, or the ten-year-old prodigy who wipes the floor with people twice his age at computer game competitions?

And would the generals let him know those are real people he’s wiping out?


amy said...

Efforts to desensitize children to killing are pretty damn depressing.

Doesn't your Blackmore do something on this?

Annie said...

Ooh, Ender's Game is great. A friend of mine "borrowed" my copy 6 years ago. It never came back. Grr! I loved Ender's Shadow as well, way back when.

Steven said...

Hi- thanks for reading my article about weaponized robots. I like the point you make here. I thought it was rather odd that manufacturers would use video games not so much as an analogy, but an outright selling point for their robots. But if you're a military buyer and your customers are largely 19-year old boys who play lots of violent video games, even in their downtime between combat operations, it's a great selling point.