The enhanced soldier in our imaginaries – #2 What kind of informations are produced by the suits ?

Following the last post on the type of armors presented in our imaginaries, we now dive into a specific point : the types of informations that are produced by the armor. Our first question is again to check if the imaginaries are relevant (i.e, an armor that does not produce any information at all, even in order to pilot it, is obviously not relevant). The second one is to see if some sources are more relevant than others : we could for example postulate that an armor that allows for easy communication between the soldiers would be interesting.

The graph below presents a distribution of the types of informations produced by the armors according to the source:

  • Enemy information represents the fact that the armor offers some type of informations regarding the opponent : location, speed, type of weapons etc.
  • Environment represents any informations that gives informations to the soldier regarding his physical environment : temperature, wind etc.
  • Group information represents all the soldier’s team’s data : level of health, geolocation, ammo left etc.
  • Finally, the biological feedback is … biological feedback from the user. Basically, heart beat, live analysis, poisoning etc. 

The first thing that we can see is that the comics are offering a much less detailed vision of this specific aspect. We do not have any specific explanation for that, but it seems that comics offer less « first point of view » drawings that the animations, manga and of course video games do. Keeping this in mind, if we had to design a GUI or a HUD for a real life usage, we would be looking less at comics than other sources.

 More interesting is the major differences that exist between comics and the other mediums regarding the « group information » data. The mangas offer many descriptions of situations where the heroes have detailed informations regarding their team members. Ghost in the Shell offers that every two or three pages. The virtual environment that almost everyone has access to in that manga being a key element of that capacity.

Interestingly, it is also fairly detailed in the literature, maybe because it allows the narrator to talk about other people than the hero in the same sequence.

The Lazarus Wars is a great example of that trick : we often follow Lazarus, the hero while he fights aliens and checks on his teammate’s health and situation. This was already at use in Robert Heinlein’s iconic Starship Troopers. However, we could start to drawn some evolutionary arcs, from a rather analogic mode of dialogue in older stories, each team-mate communicating through a single channel and the voice being the main media; while GTS offer a more invasive approach. The main character is literally surrounded by avatars talking to here. In some strips, the voices are then materialized helping her to sustain a richer dialogue with a more complex team. In other words, the way data is materialized could be the red line to follow on our interpretative pathway. 

Focusing on a less common media, the biological feedback, the video games seem thento be the most interesting medium. It seems fairly obvious in the sense that a player is supposed to deal with his health if he wants to manage hero. Thequestion here is the true potential of the visions that are presented: we are obviously not going to put in real life a heads up display to a soldier and share a life bar that will detail him how much energy he has left. This example shows that the quantitative approach is not enough. There might be numerous examples of biological feedback in video games, but how many are really interesting ? Put differently, we would have to « excuse » them in order to find better approaches. 

Some classic interaction could be a good starting point here. Why not adding a sense of being hurt (the screen becomes red and a nervous sound occurs) when your avatar is hurt, like in Doomlike games? To a certain extent, video games create an environment with no pain or body feedback, leading the player to rely only on augmented data. Knowing that the physiological body sometimes shut up consequences of injuries due to adrenaline, it might be relevant to have a real time information about body state in order to better evaluate current risks hidden by the stress.

The same should be envisioned considering the enemies and the best way to fight them knowing their actual level of health. However strange this biological feedback could be, it is a good start to add a fresh look at this issue of enhanced soldier. 

The enhanced soldier in our imaginaries – #1 What kind of soldier in which medium?

The previous global data-visualization invited us to get into details and try to sort all these things out, starting with one of the potential determinisms that come to our mind first. Namely, what kind of augmentations are envisioned regarding what type of sources for the imaginaries. At first glance, it seems to be a relevant hypothesis that each source relies on its own pictorial tradition, a specific way to give shape to future soldiers. 

So we wanted to pay more attention to this potential determinism. To do so, we have decided to stick with four types: the mini mecha (remember in Matrix?), the giant mecha (Goldorak, hear you go), the powered armor (Tom Cruise fighting aliens in Edge of Tomorrow), and the adaptive armor (Venom personified).

Regarding the sources, we have focused on movies, manga, animation (as opposed to films or manga), literature, and obviously comics. 

Sources versus Type of armor

From a methodological standpoint, let’s be clear: the first thing that comes to mind is that the diversity of the sources is not equally represented. Being a work in progress, we are working on it, but is was so “easy” to start with the DC and Marvel encyclopedia and read each hero/villain’s biography and code it so we did it.

Actually this issue is something we would like to handle more carefully, but digging into pop culture is much more than counting review on Rotten Tomatoes or so. It implies tools to dig beyond the “line of visibility” of more popular works to discover less popular but not less relevant movies, novels or even short stories. There is certainly something to invent – like creating participatory fan based database – in order to widen the scope of this category of big data.  

Nevertheless, we can see that whatever the source, the powered armor trope, the one closer to common ground and current behaviors, is a very used one, followed by the mini mecha. Some slight variations could led to more subtle analysis if they appear to be robust enough. For instance, mini mecha are over-represented in movies. In this case, we could postulate that it is easier to immerse the reader / viewer in something that feels closer to reality than having Pacific Rim style Yaegers running on the beach. This is a partis pris, not a phenomenological property of movies themselves. It could then be challenged from the standpoint of other aesthetical canons. For instance, this experiential framework could be challenged in a culture favoring collective behaviors instead of personal experience? At least, that could be an interesting enough hypothesis in order to start investigating less represented culture?

This is also interesting in the sense that our first point in the data set is the book from Heinlein that features a mini mecha. With some notorious heroes such as Iron Man following, the trope seems easier to develop. On the other hand, adaptive armor is a common feature in comics (thanks to aliens and symbiotes merging with humans) but not in movies or manga. It is hard to give extra meaning to this so far, except for hypothesizing the existence of some graphic or narrative tradition. Besides, we might be surprised to see a rather well distributed figure, meaning there is no strong determinism about the media on this choice of armor.

This rather counter-intuitive finding is quite exciting: how then could we explain variety of imaginaries? And this also means that each support is highly creative in itself. 


Illustrating weaknesses in technology : the drone case

The development of drones in the military has often led to the feeling that a Terminator like future was coming on fast. The subject is huge, but if we focus solely on drones (and not robots…), it is really interesting to see that the imaginaries offer a variety of responses highlighting the limitations of their usages in war.

First of all, a drone can be fooled. This is something that is shown in many movies, such as in Upgrade, where a murder is committed, while a drone films everything but can not recognize anyone committing the crime. 

Upgrade (2018) – Leigh Whannell 

This can be linked in the real world to all the research done on how to fight the surveillance apparatus in cities / shopping centers etc.  In fact, a simple cloth can be of help when fighting something that looks otherwise rather invulnerable:

Battle Drone (2018) – Mitch Gould

This is something rather common in the history of military strategy: new enemies and/or new fields of operation implies new weaknesses. Just like recent history has shown us with the Afghanistan war, low cost war might cause high trouble to highly technologized armies like the US one. So there is no reason to envision a somehow shield of invulnerability due a to technological drastic evolution. Each technology co-evolves with its own meshwork of weaknesses. Some are part of the infrastructure, like storing or proceeding data in the so-called cloud (in fact highly vulnerable processors or networks of cable under the ocean) or relies on dim algorithms, like in Adam Harvey’s work.

In the case of these movie, because, since it is a drone and not a robot, it is dependent upon … communication. So just killing that link between the drone and the pilot will clearly be an issue, rendering the drone useless: 

Battle Drone (2018) – Mitch Gould

Then, a drone can be stolen / caught. In Battle Drone for example, a simple rope will allow to set up a trap (and in the end destroy the drone).

Battle Drone (2018) – Mitch Gould

This is very close from what people are developing with nets  or even net guns like from the guys at Make it Extreme :

Interestingly, it sometimes calls for extreme proximity with the drone. Catching or disarming it can not always be done from far away:

Battle Drone (2018) – Mitch Gould

So imaginaries of war highlight the frailtyies of those new highly technologized weapons. Does that means there is no evolution or transformation regarding how to deal with drones? Interestingly, some features might be candidate to potential evolution. Think for instance about the very fact of shooting dozens of bullets to annihilate the drone, something that seems fairly disproportionate in the case of a human soldier. By comparison just making it blind just by adding a small piece of fabric like in that movie seems fairly efficient. Just like hunting a man is not hunting an animal, there might appear a rather subtly new paradigm of man hunting drones depending on the way to behave properly to capture it.

For example, one might not need to protect his body odors like hunter do (as far as we know), but one might beware of his body heat due to the full range of heat camera that equips military drones today. Works about how so-called traditional hunting and how they interact with animals might be an interesting analogous situation in order interesting to understand this new inter-specific mode of communication (see for instance the recent and ground-breaking Eduardo Kohn’s How Forests Think).


Two issues linked to the augmentation of a soldier’s capacities

Augmentation is a key issue in speculating about the future of war. As we noticed in our analysis of enhanced soldiers in imaginaries, strength and vision are the most common features that are adressed. In the recent “Upgrade” (2018), a nearly “Z” movie, but smart and realistic, most humans are augmented and it is rather hard to find bodies without any augmentation.

This translates into devices, cables etc that are embedded into oneself. Of course, we find these two very classic features of augmentation: more strength, and more powerful visual abilities through an augmented screen on the iris, and a less frequent device/weapon which is a gun in the arm…

Upgrade (2018) – Leigh Whannell 

… or seeing a map on your body

Upgrade (2018) – Leigh Whannell 

We also see numerous tropes that are nicely shown : being able to see behind a wall by taking advantage of opponent’s body temperature  is a rather generic UX in SF. Just like gaining access to memories of an augmented brain by seeing what has been recorded previously, during a fight scene for instance.

Upgrade (2018) – Leigh Whannell 

But putting a bullet in your own arm is far less common. You need first to insert a bullet in a cavity around your forearm, then shoot just by using your mind as a initiator. Given your hand has to be open while shooting, your vision is then very poor and approximate. The most reasonable option is that you probably don’t know exactly where is your target, your mind doing that part of the job for you.

Upgrade (2018) – Leigh Whannell 

This is precisely the most interesting hypothesis unfolded during the movie: what if an embodied AI is a double of me? What if the AI needs and requests your permission to take over the human body, but also his mind and act with his/her proper strength, but also speed and sense of anticipation of the opponent’s moves ?

Upgrade (2018) – Leigh Whannell 

Two things at last are quite striking in this smart movie. First, the body is the first and most natural tool of mankind, to quote Marcel Mauss, founder of the modern Fench anthropology. Even nanobots are stocked and expelled from the body when blowing her nose. In the movie the whole body becomes a tool, enhanced by the AI

Upgrade (2018) – Leigh Whannell 

Second, it asks a strange question: what if an AI inhabited your body. Being a cyborg doesn’t mean changing yourself and becaming someone else. Not only because of new physical features. But this happens also at the level of your own identity. And this is this a quite intense philosophical issue that the movie challenges.

And the movie does that by addressing concrete Interface design question like : how to deal with a second mind in your own consciousness ? How to make sure he/ she act under your own control? Going a step further than more common issues – like the Ghost in the Shell’s heroin talking to multiple bots at the same time, here the main character has to talk to himself. Something that will become more and more complex since the body appears to be part of this identity. So, how far becoming a cyborg means becoming someone else? And in the case of the Army, to what point are you willing to enhance a soldier if you do not manage these unintended consequences ?


Imaginaries are a powerful tool … that needs real work to be used for futuring

This whole research is based on the systematic analysis of 289 imaginaries depicting the soldier of the future. The work has been done by looking at comics, manga, animation, video games, films and literature and by evaluating more that sixteen variables each time. The work is an ongoing one and our main issue is to clarify how to dig into imaginaries of SF in order to sustain the practice of imagining the future in a coherent and powerful way.

Even though it still needs an enormous amount of work (for example, we are obviously lacking information regarding literature, and are digging into that), the dataviz offers a quick and rough summary of that work in progress and already allows us to capture a few key elements:

1.     First of all, and that might be the main takeaway at that point, not every cultural source offers the same potential. Each cultural object (medium) is deeply rooted in a specific cultural context. So this is no surprise that the “mini meccha” and “giant meccha” trope is much more developed in the anime and manga world. Giant robots being a recurrent topic in Japan, their human piloted counterparts are easily found in these two mediums. On the opposite, the “powered armor” trope is widely used in comics (if you are not bitten by a spider, then a nice exoskeleton or suit is nice for narrative purposes). This means that if one is looking at fictions in order to speculate about the future of war, one needs to select the adequate medium to dive in. This is a “medium prism” that we hypothesize might exist regarding any topic of interest.

2.     Looking at each category of augmentation, we see that some characteristics are widely offered to the soldier. Unsurprisingly, the first one is an increased strength. Clearly an issue that has always been one for every army in the world and that continues to be. Flying is also something that is a recurring trope and sees development in real life. Looking at the Zapata flyboard reminds us of the green goblin’s board and it seems that it would of interest for an army.

3.     The imaginaries also offer interesting visions of future fields of warfare: almost 10% of our database deals with an enhanced soldier having to fight in space or under water. Videogames are particularly interesting here and the developers have been deeply speculating about this (check Halo for exemple). 

So, what those first learnings highlight is that the way future is created is absolutely not neutral. But it is possible to identify rules internal to a category of imaginaries or a specific type of medium. This finding might help us to speed up the way we access relevant imaginaries by focusing on a specific source in order to avoid over-interpretation by missing the fact that some subjects or interactions are far more explored than others. 


Note : the bubbles do not represent 100% in each category because there are sometimes much more variables, but we could not represent everything in the dataviz. For example in the “limitations & vulnerabilities” part we have close to thirty different types of them, so we had to select a limited number.

The augmented human needs more informations and new interactions

Extracts from Iron Man movies / Huds & Guis 

The future has an « aesthetics » that is communicated through mainstream science fiction, comics etc. Amongst the elements that are now widely used to show that something is « futuristic » is the HUD (heads Up Display). In fact, it is become a trop in itself. This sole design feature warns the audience that the action happens somewhere in the future. Just like 30 years ago, big computer with large grey monitor were the norm for “future look”. In an occidental world dominated by the visual stance over other sensory dimensions, this enhancement of embodied skill is certainly not done by chance. Just consider the “future of sports” from Lacoste. Also, with no surprise, it has been a key element of one of the biggest super hero movie ever: Iron Man.

Frankly speaking, looking at the movie for the first time with a critical eye, the display is really “show off” and does not seem to be very User friendly or even useful. It blinks, indicators move, and there are up to 27 different information in Tony Stark’s first flight, farm to much to offer a good experience of data visualization. What is shown is light-years away the greenish and polished aspect of the current HUD used in fighter planes. At first stance, it looks like just a movie trick to enhance dramaturgy and create an atmosphere of technology.

However, the movie still offers some interesting insights when considering motives of creative peoples leading to this excessive design. Over-information provided by the head-up display could help the “user” to connect his mind to a more than normal body. This change in cognition would then require specific information architecture.

1. First of all, when you read interviews of the producers of the CGI effects, they basically explain that since Tony Stark is a geek, they crammed the HUD with info on purpose, because he would be interested in having as much information as possible, and about things as diverse as health, flight patterns or …. the wikipedia page of the big wheel he zooms on during his first flight! It is then interesting to recognize there might be an esthetic of information treatment. The very fact of giving information available may help someone to better connect to the role-play he is performing.

2. Then, keeping this is mind, when looking more closely, a few things are interesting. In the Mark II suit for example, we can clearly see the dock icons allowing him to shift from the flight interface to the targeting, the radar etc. There are also some widgets that appear such as the weather information. They have also this weird « pass through » effect where an information can literally move through the HUD and then disappear, which has, to our knowledge, never been used before that movie. Maybe staying attune to the information process performed by a central computer is more relevant than just interpreting information.

3. In the Mark III suit, the things change a bit. In order to keep this « futuristic aesthetics », the producers needed to adapt the HUD, and they did this by focusing on that big widget/interface which is on the right of his HUD and allows him to monitor his suit (and his health, which seems to be new with the Mark III.

4. Finally, if we look at the iron monger, we clearly see what a « militarized » version of the same HUD would look like.

Something which is much closer to what exists in real life (aside of the red color that is probably here to make it « scifi » like). Is he more or less efficient that the show-off version of the display, it is hard to say. But we can observe that Tony Stark inhabits his suit. So the density of interaction is not just pure fancy. On the contrary, this gives a certain rhythm to tasks and actions. The display certainly acts in a strongly autonomous way, and the information gives Tony Stark the opportunity to react to…. an augmented himself. This shift in paradigm, from augmentation to inform to augmentation to remain connected to an augmented body, opens new perspectives into how people will deal with their transformed, quasi-robotic body. An option for the near future and a great field of study !

So, to put in a nutshell, there has been quite some work done on that HUD, and even if crammed with information, it still offer us at least three different visions of how such a thing could work. And they invite us to go beyond pure information manipulation to see how augmented devices help to, literally, put yourself into someone else’s shoes.


Hacking issues

Extract from Kill Command – 2016 – Directed by  Steven Gomez

Kill Command is a military scifi movie that has not really been an audience success. However, it is full of interesting interactions, gadgets and of course robots gone mad. In this scene, we can see the sniper targeting a contractor from defense industry. While he is aiming at her, she is gaining access to his weapon, and locking. 

There are numerous fictions that present the key role that hacking is currently and will be playing in the battlefield (just think of Ghost in the Shell and AppleSeed in the manga realm), but what is interesting here is how the contractor is able to hack the weapon.

She basically has the easiest access ever to it. So, either it is legal and there is a reason for it (why not), either she has a backdoor and that becomes clearly an issue. In this very specific case they both are on the same side (and are about to be in dire need of each other while fighting robots…), but what if this backdoor was accessible to a foe?

This is what the novel Ghost Fleet is about : the F35 (which already has enough issues to deal with), is presented in the fiction as being easily hackable by the Chinese, who are capable of grounding it whenever they want. Warning or not, it has raised some concerns in the US, where civilian technologies are not being banned due to risks of hacking (remember the army banning the DJI drones ? ;))

Another interesting thing in this extract is the existence of the two “devices”. By comparing the amount of information provided by the gun scope and the amount provided by the contact lens, the second seems to offer more data, but the link between them is not very clear : what do you put in the contact lens, and what do you put in the scope.

Also interesting is the fact that the contractor seems to need to target the gun with her gaze in order to lock it. This interaction runs counter to the popular ideology of hacking, which behaves like an invisible hand, supposed to capture everything it wants through an invisible network.

Another interesting feature of this video clip is the fact that she must target the gun with her gaze in order to lock it. This interaction runs counter to the popular ideology of hacking, which behaves like an invisible hand, supposed to capture everything it wants through an invisible network.

On the contrary, it reminds us that each network needs an infrastructure to function. So fragility has a material background. The irony of the scene is that in order to lock the weapon, it seems to have to be placed in front of it. Which is probably not the best way to act safely. This is probably due to the aesthetics of the scene, to create a dramatic athmosphere, a design feature that we must take into account in order to analyze the technical problems of SF films in general.


Exploding drones and targeting systems

Extract from Elysium – 2014 – Directed by Neill Blomkamp

During the Winter Olympics in South Korea, a swarm of drones offered a fairly amazing show, demonstrating the potential of the technology. Used in a civilian context, the ballet was fairly beautiful but it raises some concerns amongst the military as to the danger that it might pose. Even more since it is already possible to launch mini drones from a plane.

In fiction, drones are commonly found but not used in a way that would be realistic. Well aside of a short few seconds in Elysium. What we can see in the extract is Kruger launching a few drones that are embedded on his gauntlet in order to kill his opponent. In order to do so, he holds in his right hand a laser that he uses to paint his target. He then taps a button and the mini drones leave his gauntlet. They “autonomously” fly to the target, and hit him without exploding. Kruger has to press another button in order to have the drones explode.

Aside of the joy that Kruger shows when the drones explode (which is obviously pathological), this short interaction raises a number of questions :

  1. When discussing the issues relating to drones and even more swam drones, people always underline the question of how autonomous they should be (if they should at all). In this specific interaction, the answer is that they are not. Basically, without Kruger painting the target for the drones, nothing will happen. Plus, there is another step in between where you have Kruger launching them. So, first paint, then authorize the launch by tapping on the gauntlet. 
  2. I do not know how easy it would be to paint someone while standing in the hatch of a quadcopter (even more if that person is running and firing at you in the same time). In any case, it seems a bit complex to have to hold a laser in your right hand the way he does, while having to type on an interface on the same hand to confirm the launch. Just clicking on a button on the laser with your thumb would be so much easier (but less hollywoodish of course).
  3. After the launch, we have to assume that the drones are capable of locating themselves, scanning the area, understanding that there is nothing where the painting was done, and that in fact, the person who has left that spot is the one running over there. If the drones were not autonomous before, they clearly are now. 
  4. Which of course raises the interest of having to confirm the explosion by having Kruger type something on his gauntlet (again, why not just click on the laser?). Here, it would also imply that he can clearly view where the drones are, and that the targeted person is indeed the target.

Blomkamp offers us a fairly interesting vision of how mini drones can interact with a soldier and how they can be used. While being plausible,  situation is nevertheless theoretical since it assumes that there is clear line of sight for painting and confirming (and that the drones are smart enough to do the work in between by themselves without making any mistakes).

Imaginaries of war

The objective of the blog is to analyze the imaginaries of war (movies, manga, anime, novels etc.) through a number of dimensions (logistics, interface, weapons, transport, medical etc.), and to put in perspective their prediction capabilities or usefulness for innovation.

A first draft of this research has been published in the Defense & Security Internationale of September 2018, and further work is in progress.