Flat pack flight on the final frontier

Photo by Matthijs van Heerikhuize on Unsplash

Today’s smallsats could pave the way for a future generation of self-configuring modular spacecraft.

Small satellites are big business. According to the UK’s Satellite Applications Catapult, more than 2,000 “smallsats” are expected to take to the skies in 2022.

The official definition of a small satellite is a spacecraft with a mass of less than 180 kilograms and dimensions no larger than a standard American refrigerator-freezer. Lighter and easier to manufacture than bigger spacecraft, smallsats are better suited to mass launch programs and constellations and are often used as testbeds for new technologies, or for missions that don’t justify the expense of a larger satellite.   

A variety of smallsat known as the CubeSat is a modular unit than can be used in conjunction with other units to provide a configurable and scalable platform for a variety of mission profiles.

Initially employed in low Earth orbit for remote sensing or communication applications, small spacecraft like these could one day be used to support the assembly and repair of larger spacecraft; explore planetary environments, and perform scientific observation of asteroids and comets.

As a science fiction author, I am very excited by the idea of a swarm of independent spacecraft that can combine at will to form larger structures. Allow me to project that concept forward a few decades and describe the following scene.

Imagine a rocket on the pad at Cape Canaveral. Atop the booster, an astronaut sits in a capsule that only yesterday was a pile of smaller units in a warehouse. Now, they have configured themselves into a crew vehicle. Propelled into orbit by the reusable booster, they join with other cubesats already in orbit and rearrange themselves to form the interplanetary transfer vehicle that will carry the astronaut to the Moon. Meanwhile, other clusters of identical cubes are in use as space stations, refuelling depots, communication relays, and even surface rovers.

Instead of developing an expensive range of specialised vehicles, future space explorers could use modularity to provide them with the tools to meet any mission profile.

We can also imagine combining this concept with the ‘utility fog’ technology I described in a previous column, in which clouds of tiny programmable nano-robots make up networks of interconnected, micron-sized particles that can be configured to any pre-determined shape and be used to construct larger machines.

In that case, explorers on Mars wouldn’t worry about having a return vehicle for the journey home. When they needed it, their habitat would simply break itself down and repurpose its components.

Cheap and standardised, these advanced cubesats would be cheap and easy to produce in huge numbers. All they would need for each mission would be instructions or templates telling them how to configure themselves. And when the mission was over, they would simply break apart into individual units again, ready to be programmed into the next required shape.

In this future, the constellations currently being assembled by SpaceX and OneWeb would seem as nothing to the clouds of tiny satellites crowding low Earth orbit. If they become sufficiently inexpensive, it’s feasible every phone or internet user could have their own dedicated cubesat, able to communicate via the network of its brethren with any other user. Rather than relying on ground-based servers, our webs of communication would reside in space—safe from interference, censorship or sabotage, but maybe more vulnerable to solar flares and other hazards.

And while all this sounds exciting, it will also bring hazards we maybe haven’t foreseen. NASA estimates that there are currently around 6,500 satellites orbiting the Earth, almost half of which are inactive or obsolete. Add to this the 27,000 pieces of orbital debris or ‘space junk’ currently being tracked by the US Department of Defence’s Space Surveillance Network, and you start to realise that low Earth orbit is a seriously congested place. And when you consider that much of this material is moving at around 17,500 miles per hour, the dangers of collision become apparent.

A collision between two satellites, or between a satellite and a piece of random space junk, might cause more problems than simply damaging or destroying the items involved. Each collision would provide more debris, orbiting the Earth in a dispersing cloud like a shotgun blast. And if collisions become more frequent, the amount of debris will grow, causing further collisions in an exponential cascade, until all we’re left with is a planetary ring of dust-sized wreckage of no use to anyone.

This article originally appeared in The Engineer magazine.

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Terraforming The Earth

As a certain billionaire dreams of terraforming Mars to make it habitable, and governments and organisations around the world slowly turn their attention to the escalating climate crisis, I thought it might be time to examine some science-fictional ideas for terraforming the Earth.

Before I start, I want to give a quick disclaimer: I’m not a climate scientist. My job as a SF author is to ask questions (sometimes stupid questions), tell stories and provoke thought.

Earth is the only planet we currently know if that’s even slightly habitable. Mars may look good as an alternative, but if you went out on the surface unprotected, you’d die in seconds. The atmospheric pressure is a hundred times lower than it is on Earth, and what little air there is consists mostly of carbon dioxide. The average surface temperature is a lethal -62 degrees centigrade, and there’s no magnetic shield to protect the surface from deadly solar and cosmic radiation. In short, it’s a hellhole.

If we want to secure the long-term survival of the human race, our time and resources would be better employed repairing the damage to the Earth. The planet has some huge advantages over Mars, in that we can breathe the air, survive on the surface without pressure suits, and the magnetic field caused by the rotating molten core protects us from the Sun’s radiation. Add to that the abundance of water, and our world resembles a paradise compared to the alternative.

But how long will it last? If we want to see the effects of a runaway greenhouse effect, we only have to look as far as Venus, which once had oceans similar to ours. But as its surface temperature rose, more and more of its surface water evaporated to the upper atmosphere, where the molecules were broken apart by ultraviolet light, allowing the hydrogen to escape into space. With the water gone, carbon dioxide levels rose unstoppably, trapping more and more of the sun’s heat until the average surface temperature became hot enough to melt lead.

So, how do we prevent the Earth following a similar trajectory? The two most important variables seem to be the amount of solar heat reaching the planet, and the amount of carbon dioxide in the air.

We need to be scrubbing carbon and locking it up in artificial diamond blocks, which we can drop into the Mariana Trench, and genetically engineered algae in the stratosphere, absorbing the CO2 and excreting oxygen. 

But how do we reduce the amount of heat we receive from the Sun? The two most obvious options are to somehow block the light or to move the Earth further out, into a cooler orbit.

Blocking the light and heat could involve painting large areas of the surface white, to reflect it back into space. Finding some way to re-freeze our poles and glaciers would also be a big help.

You want an engineering challenge? How about attaching radiator fins to the Earth? The space elevator is a well-known concept—a thread of unreasonably strong material anchored at the equator and extending up to geostationary orbit, allowing easy travel to and from the surface. But what happens if we add superconducting cables to the design, and a huge radiator fin to the top, allowing heat to be leeched from the atmosphere and dispersed into space? Vacuum is a great insulator, but there must be some way to bleed away the heat, even if we convert it into the energy to power a laser that fires it off into space. Although the idea of a powerful space laser falling into the wrong hands sounds like the plot of one of the more outlandish Bond films.

Or how about installing a huge mirror between the Earth and the Sun, like a gigantic parasol that could shade large portions of the planet from its full glare? Keeping it in place would be a challenge, as it would catch the solar wind like a sail, but it’s not beyond the realms of possibility. A cloud of reflective dust would have a similar effect, but probably be even harder to control.

Grazing comets through the upper atmosphere would deliver more water into our atmosphere, creating more cloud and further blocking the sun. But the technology to precisely deliver a comet to Earth orbit could easily be abused by a government wanting to obliterate its enemies with space rocks.

Engineering our climate will be difficult and controversial, but surely it has to be orders of magnitude easier than starting from scratch on a distant world that only a tiny percentage of us can ever hope to reach?

This article originally appeared in The Engineer.

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The Robot Will See You Now

As last month’s column [It’s The End of the World As We Know It – The Engineer Sept 2021] was a bit of a bleak one, I decided this month to concentrate on good news stories. After all, we could all do with a few rays of hope in these difficult times. So, fortified by a strong cup of tea, I set forth to find something that might lend us hope for a brighter future…

The first thing that caught my eye was Melissa Bradshaw’s article on assistive robotics [Lending A Helping Hand, The Engineer, Sept 2021]. With the advent of the pandemic, the concept of being able to treat patients remotely has never seemed so relevant. We also have an ageing population that will require ever more support in order to maintain independent lives while living with age and frailty. 

Some of the solutions put forward involve telepresence robots, which allow doctors to attend patients without the risk of infection. I’ve already seen some of these robots in action—at least in the much simplified civilian version—at science fiction conventions. Resembling iPads on a stick, they trundle around the venue enabling fans from around the world to experience the event from the comfort of their own homes. Using them for healthcare visits provides some human interaction between doctor and patient. And by removing the need for a doctor to be physically present, the possibility exists for patients to undergo consultations with specialists from anywhere in the world at no added expense.

However, as our population skews increasingly towards old age, will we have enough qualified doctors to operate all these telepresence machines? 

That’s where the need for autonomous robots arises, and several teams are already working on ways for to provide comfort and companionship, including the use of human-shaped robots that can communicate with a person to help with physical tasks, such as picking up objects or helping them get out of bed, act as their assistant, and provide instructions on carrying out tasks, such as when to take medicine.

Obviously, the sophisticated the robot’s ability to communicate with a patient, the more successful it will be in its task. To do this, it will need to be able to recognise social cues and take instructions from users who may have trouble communicating verbally. 

As a science fiction writer, my thought immediately jump to artificial intelligence, and the possibility that we will be cared for in our dotage by self-aware machines able to provide companionship as well as monitoring our health, keeping us fed and clean, and recommending treatment for ailments. 

But the existence of those sentient carers raises a whole host of ethical dilemmas. If they are thinking beings, surely they would deserve rights, including the right to self-determination? Denying them this would be to have essentially created a slave race to clean our houses and wipe our backsides. And if you want a Terminator-style robot uprising, that’s a pretty good way to go about getting one.

Beyond that, though, you’d have to teach the robot ethics. Asimov’s First Law of Robotics famously stated that, ‘A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.’ But how does a robot decide what constitutes harm or inaction in the case of a terminal patient? Is it in fact kinder to allow a terminal patient succumbing to their condition to die naturally rather than to keep resuscitating them over and over again? How would a machine make that judgement call?

As we move out into space, we will increasingly need machines capable of keeping us fit and well, and there are precents in science fiction. In Duncan Jones’ 2009 film Moon, Sam Rockwell’s lone astronaut is accompanied by an artificial intelligence that monitors his health and communicates mood through happy or sad emojis. And in Frederik Pohl’s classic 1977 novel Gateway, the story is told in flashback, as the main character relates events to his robot psychiatrist.

But why stop there?

We have to assume that technological innovations will continue. And perhaps one day, the machines that monitor our physical well-being won’t be computers in the sense we understand them today, but rather clouds of molecule-sized engines adrift in our blood, filtering out toxins, and combatting viruses. Able to move individual atoms around, they would be able to repair wounds or broken bones in a matter of hours, or repair damage to internal organs without the patient needing to be sliced open. Even more intriguingly, they could repair the telomeres on our chromosomes, mitigating some of the effects of ageing. 

With the advent of nanotechnology, we might all end up carrying our own doctors around inside us. 

Photo by Andy Kelly on Unsplash

This article originally appeared in The Engineer.

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The End of the World

Recently, I’ve been thinking about the end of the world—or at least, the world as we know it. 

This isn’t anything new, of course. Those of us who grew up during the Cold War had to contend with the ever-present threat of imminent nuclear destruction. It haunted our dreams, and seemed so inevitable, there was hardly a science fiction story of the time that didn’t somehow assume a full-scale nuclear war before the year 2000. Even Star Trek, that great utopian beacon of hope and possibility, assumed the Federation would arise (with a little help from the Vulcans) from the ashes of World War Three.

Then in the 1990s, as the danger of atomic obliteration began to fade, science fiction writers became obsessed with a new danger: The Singularity. For those unfamiliar with the concept, the Singularity is a point in time beyond which the world will have changed beyond our ability to predict, and it is generally assumed that it will be brought about by some form of artificial intelligence. If we develop a computer smarter than us, and that computer designs a computer smarter than it, we enter a runaway explosion of super-intelligence that will leave us at the mercy of beings we can’t even begin to comprehend.

Either that, or self-replicating nanotech assemblers will get loose and turn the entire world into copies of themselves.

As science and technology advances, science fiction follows along behind, gleefully pointing out the worst case scenarios. 

However, there’s nothing gleeful about the latest existential crisis facing the human race.

Several things caught my eye over the last couple of weeks. The first was the  release of the IPCC’s Climate Report, which paints a very gloomy picture of climate change and our ability to slow it in the near term, and the second was an article in The Guardian reporting that scientists have spotted warning signs that the Gulf Stream may be on the verge of collapse. 

I was mulling over the potential effects of those reports when I stumbled across a study from Anglia-Ruskin University in the journal Sustainability. This study had the catchy title, An Analysis of the Potential for the Formation of ‘Nodes of Persisting Complexity’ and explains how environmental destruction, climate change, resource shortages, and population growth might trigger a “reduction in the overall complexity of civilisation” 

This “de-complexification” could occur rapidly, in less than a year, as supply chains, international agreements, and global financial structures collapse, causing knock-on effects and feedback loops that eventually lead to a “widespread reversal of the trends of recent civilisation.”

As you can imagine, I was feeling fairly gloomy by this point. And that’s when someone pointed me in the direction of a study published in the Yale Journal of Industrial Ecology that predicts the terminal decline of economic growth within the coming decade, leading to societal collapse by 2040.

The Anglia-Ruskin University study identifies New Zealand, Iceland, the UK, Tasmania and Ireland as the nations most likely to be resilient to a global decline and fall—but even these will be profoundly affected by faltering supply chains and have to take drastic steps to become more self-sufficient (the UK in particular faces challenges, as it has a high population density and a relatively low availability of agricultural land).

There will be some hard choices ahead, and whether we can trust our politicians to make the right ones remains to be seen. But if we’re going to soften a potential collapse, we need to find ways to create a more robust infrastructure and ensure hardy supply chains to keep the lights on and food on the shelves; to deliver medicine and clean water wherever they’re needed; and to slow the rate of climate change. We’re going to need zero carbon manufacturing, transport and energy production, and new methods for dealing with droughts, wildfires and flooding. Whole populations will move away from the worst affected areas, and they will need accommodation and a supporting infrastructure.            Wherever we look, there will be a need for innovative engineers to help us adapt to a more hostile world. As SF writers, we can imagine solutions to those problems; as engineers, you’re going to have to design and build them.

The actions we take over the next ten years will probably decide humanity’s long-term fate. The necessary changes will be difficult and pose huge political, technological and cultural challenges, but to quote Gaya Herrington, the author of the study I mentioned from the Yale Journal of Industrial Ecology, “Human activity can be regenerative and our productive capacities can be transformed. In fact, we are seeing examples of that happening right now. Expanding those efforts now creates a world full of opportunity that is also sustainable.”

Photo by Hadassah Carlson on Unsplash

This article originally appeared in The Engineer.

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Brave New Worlds?

What is it with billionaires and rockets? As I sit down to write this column, the world’s richest man has just returned from his first suborbital flight. It might sound like the plot from a James Bond novel, but Jeff Bezos has ridden along on the first crewed launch of his Blue Origin New Shepard rocket. 

This follows Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic jaunt, and the announcement that California-based Relativity Space has revealed its plans for Terran R, a fully reusable and entirely 3D-printed space launch vehicle. 

While the Terran R’s primary mission will be launching payloads of up to 20,000 kg into low Earth orbit, the company’s longer term vision includes the provision of a space freighter capable of missions between Earth, Moon and Mars. CEO, Tim Ellis said, “Relativity was founded with the mission to 3D print entire rockets and build humanity’s industrial base on Mars.”

While Bezos seems primarily concerned with the Moon and moving heavy industry into space in order to reduce pollution, Relativity’s focus on Mars chimes with the long-term aims of Elon Musk. Musk sees the red planet as an opportunity to establish a back-up to Earth. Rather than keep all our eggs in one basket, he hopes to ensure our survival by turning humanity into a multi-planet species. But what kind of society does Musk envision for Mars, and how might he control it?

At this point, I’m going to move away from discussing real life figures and don my science fiction author’s hat.

So, consider a hypothetical billionaire has established a small colony on Mars, consisting of maybe a hundred people who intend to spend the rest of their lives there. Perhaps this hypothetical billionaire is genuinely benevolent, and will work towards creating a fair and egalitarian society. But what if they aren’t? What happens if this isn’t a humanitarian mission at all, but simply an attempt to escape the existential risks of climate change on Earth? Perhaps they’ve decided the Earth is a lost cause, and they want to use their money to jump ship. In either case, what will life be like for those colonists? Try to imagine having a job where your boss literally owns the air you breathe. These founders may all set out with the same goals in mind, but what happens when their fledgeling society inevitably runs into disagreements about the direction of its development. Are the colonists going to want to be owned by the same company for their entire lives? How much freedom can they expect when their employer is in possession of everything they need in order to survive, and can therefore dictate their behaviour?

The idea of being incarcerated in an inescapable corporate panopticon may be enough to give George Orwell nightmares, but will it really be inescapable? 

If civilisation on Earth crumbles, how much will our billionaire’s money be worth? People will be worried about friends and relatives back on Earth. To maintain authority, our billionaire will need security personnel. But how will they pay them when the banks on Earth are gone? Without anything to spend it on, money’s just an abstract series of ones and zeroes in a computer. How will our billionaire keep their security personnel onside? Without their billions, anyone tempted to act like a dictator may find themselves summarily booted out of the nearest airlock without a pressure suit.

In previous columns, I have explored the implications of using autonomous drones on the battlefield. Our billionaire may consider investing in a few smart machines to keep the populace in line. These drones will have to be pretty smart to stay one jump ahead of resourceful rebels, but how smart do you want a drone to be? At what point will it assess its situation and realise its best chance of survival is to refuse to follow orders or defect to the enemy?

Frankly, the only way for our billionaire to survive and flourish on their new world will be to genuinely build a fair and democratic society in which everyone can participate. This will mean huge investments in infrastructure and quality of life, and necessitate a large team of engineers with a wide variety of specialist knowledge. Factories, greenhouses and accommodation units will need to be built, but so will schools, parks, and social spaces. 

All of this also applies to the Moon or orbital colonies. Humans are social animals, and if we’re creating an artificial environment for ourselves, that has to be taken into account.

Photo by Ellyot on Unsplash

This article first appeared in The Engineer magazine.

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Herders of Mars

Photo: NASA

With the maiden flight of NASA’s Ingenuity, we celebrated one of the most significant engineering milestones of recent times. Despite having to contend with lower gravity and a thinner atmosphere, an aircraft flew on Mars for the first time. It was the first powered, controlled flight of a human-built vehicle on another planet—a significance celebrated by the onboard inclusion of a tiny scrap of material from the Wright brothers’ first flyer. 

The Ingenuity flights were relatively modest in duration, but they were a proof of concept. What comes next will be interesting. The Wright brothers’ first hop was shorter in length than the wingspan of the Boeing 747, which first took to the skies only sixty-six years after Kitty Hawk. Who knows what we could have flying through the Martian clouds sixty-six years from now?

The first thought I have is of a massive blimp carrying several dozen of these helicopters. Being solar powered, there’s little reason it can’t stay aloft for days, weeks, maybe even years. Every time the scientists on Earth identify a location of potential interest, the blimp dispatches a helicopter to investigate, soaring over any intervening rough terrain with more ease and speed than a rover.

A helicopter has the potential to get up-close and personal with the strata in a cliff face—something that’s obviously difficult for a ground-based vehicle. A fleet of them could traverse and map the length of the great Valles Marineras canyons without worrying about the bumpy topography.

But why stop with an automated blimp? Viewers of The Martian will remember long sequences of Matt Damon bouncing around in a rover for weeks as he treks towards salvation. But what if he’d been able to jump in a helicopter and fly there in a day? When humans start building bases on Mars, helicopters would be as valuable to them as they are for bases in the Artic and Antarctica. They could be used to airlift personnel to areas of potential interest identified via satellite survey. They could fly missions to resupply forward outposts, and rescue explorers stranded by injury or technical malfunction. They could even—god forbid—be used for security and defence. 

Science fiction writers get a lot of mileage from imagining worst-case scenarios. We find drama in the idea of things going wrong. So, while I hope that in the near future we as a species will outgrow our childish infatuation with war, Mars is an entire planet filled with currently unclaimed resources and territory. A bright red jewel hanging just within our reach. Can our acquisitive monkey natures resist squabbling over such a prize? Only 15 years after Wilbur and Orville showed powered flight was possible, squadrons of biplanes were dogfighting in the war-torn skies over France. So, now I’m imagining a drone war on Mars, fought remotely by competing governments or corporations, each vying for control of profitable ore deposits or water sources. Helicopter gunships whispering through the thin air, hunting for enemy rovers. Mass accelerators on Phobos and Deimos wiping out mining installations with meteoric bombardment from on high…

Air travel shrank the Earth. Instead of spending months sailing to Australia, it is now possible to get there in a matter of a day or two. The same will be true of Mars. If we build the right aircraft, we’ll be able to go anywhere on the planet—and don’t forget how much smaller Mars is already. Where Earth’s diameter is 7,926 miles, the diameter of Mars is only 4,220 miles. So, while the technical challenges are huge, the distances are shorter and the gravity is lighter.

But why stop there? Now we know we can engineer machines able to fly in different gravities and through different atmospheric compositions, we should be building choppers capable of exploring the cloud tops of Venus. Huge machines with rotors the size of wind turbines could track the storm systems in Jupiter’s atmosphere, or cruise the ochre skies of Titan seeking life in its hydrocarbon lakes.

However, I’m going to end this post with a truly science fictional image. Imagine, if you will, a Mars in the not too distant future, where a combination of terraforming techniques have thickened the atmosphere enough for hardy plants to grow and specially adapted animals to roam the surface. And on this new tundra, shaggy herds of reindeer and buffalo graze the tough, wiry grass, watched over by autonomous helicopter shepherds, while overhead, two moons shine in the afternoon sky.

This article first appeared in The Engineer magazine.

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How will automation affect global trade and travel?

Scanning through April’s issue of The Engineer, several articles caught my eye. The first was about the inaugural flight of Boeing’s Loyal Wingman autonomous aircraft, and the second concerned the lighter-than-air blimps being developed by Hybrid Air Vehicles in the UK. As a science fiction writer, I immediately concatenated the two notions and began to imagine AI-controlled airships carrying passengers and cargo around the globe, plying their routes without need for human guidance.

I was still pondering this idea when I came to an article about the new wave of electric boats, and in particular the Scandinavian container ship Yara Birkeland, which is the world’s first battery-powered autonomous vessel. Automated logistics will load chemicals and fertiliser onto the ship at the Yara International headquarters in Herøya; then the vessel will steer itself to the nearby container port in Brevik, where more automated systems will unload it.

Of course, this chimed with my notion of self-piloting airships, and I began to imagine an entire infrastructure in which machines harvest raw materials at one end, which are then shipped to automated factories, and the resulting products delivered to where they’re needed without human intervention at any stage. You want more flat-pack sofas? The robots go out into the forest, cut down the trees and transfer the logs to a processing ship, which delivers ready-cut pieces to a packaging plant that bundles them up and arranges for self-driving trucks, ships and airships to deliver them to stores around the world. 

Beyond that, the article on hydrogen-powered trains suggested such arrangements could also be provided for passengers. Trains, after all, don’t have a lot of choice about their routes. All they need to do is follow the rails and not hit anything. So, we could easily factor in a network of automated public transport, with major cities as hubs, in which a Londoner could order a self-driving taxi to take them to Paddington, from where they could catch an automated train to Heathrow, where they might board a passenger airship bound for New York…

The final article that caught my eye concerned the developments of freeports in the UK, where the Chancellor recently announced the creation of eight such entities. He defined a freeport as ‘An area inside the UK geographically, but legally outside of the UK customs territory.’ This means goods and raw materials can be imported, assembled and exported without paying domestic duties or tax.

Freeports would naturally become nodes in the automated passenger and freight networks we have been imagining. Advocates imagine them becoming centres of innovation, with the economic ripples spreading out into the surrounding communities and attract people to live and work near the freeport zones—while critics worry these freeports could become cut-off from the regions in which they sit, thriving whilst the rest of the country withers economically. 

As a science fiction writer, I immediately imagined the famous freeports of the genre: Mos Eisley, Babylon 5, Deep Space Nine… They are portrayed as romantic, slightly disreputable places, with thriving black markets and an underclass of hustlers, scoundrels and smugglers taking advantage of the facility’s interstitial legal status. Would modern freeports attract such people? A thriving port would certainly need the support systems provided by the hotel, food and leisure industries. Wherever wealth is generated, a secondary economy arises to provide for the workers and itinerant travellers. 

My science fiction brain pictures these places in a hundred years. While much of the country exists in agrarian poverty, these freeports are enclaves of prosperity, served by automated cargo systems that connect them to similar ports all over the world: a global meta-nation of trade and travel freed from the states within whose borders they nominally sit. 

It sounds exciting, but with control of the ‘roads’ of this new empire, the freeports would be able to dictate terms to their hosts. If the government became too interfering, the ports could threaten to cut off their supplies of certain items, maybe even redirect them to other markets. In this way, the ports themselves could become the seats of political control, endorsing certain parties or candidates in order to strengthen their own positions.

That’s a hell of a setting for a modern retelling of Casablanca.

But I wasn’t done yet. I found myself picturing a dystopia future scenario set a few years later, in which the human race had succumbed to a new, deadlier pandemic and our automated supply chains still rattled along oblivious of our demise, creating and shipping goods no one would ever use; where empty buses and trains still ran their scheduled services—at least until their batteries expired or their solar panels degraded. A melancholy vision of the slow breakdown of unthinking systems in an empty world.

This article first appeared in The Engineer magazine.

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Natural selection on the unmanned battlefield

Forget the “Terminator scenario”. The future of AI based warfare could be far weirder than that.

Two articles recently caught my eye. The first was about the Royal Navy’s decision to test extra-large autonomous submarines with a view to incorporating them in its fleet, and the second concerned the MOD’s acquisition of five unmanned ground vehicles for battlefield resupply missions.

Now, as I’m a science fiction author, you might be expecting me to leap straight to the conclusion that these automated vehicles will somehow rise up against us and destroy the world in a Terminator-style apocalypse. And while that may be a fun scenario for a Hollywood blockbuster, frankly any species dumb enough to place its entire offensive capability in the charge of a single artificial intelligence deserves everything it gets.

No, in this post, I want to look at some of the stranger implications of this technology.

To start with, let me state the obvious: war produces casualties, and if we’re deploying autonomous vehicles into active theatres, they are going to get damaged. It’s easy to imagine automated ambulances ferrying human casualties away from the front line, but what about unmanned tow trucks and drones equipped to repair autonomous vehicles? Machines repairing other machines without human intervention.

If those machines can be repaired on the battlefield, perhaps they can also be improved and modified in situ to cope with unexpected changes in terrain, mission requirement, or threat level? Throw in some simple learning algorithms for the tow trucks, and that sounds like something I could write a story about: a fleet of war machines that are turned loose and adapt to the needs of the battle as it happens, undergoing a rapid Darwinian machine evolution dictated by the circumstances in which they are operating.

What might such machines look like by the end of a protracted conflict? If the other side also uses similar technology, would the evolution be accelerated as each side became involved in a race to outclass the other? A simple unmanned supply truck might evolve into a heavily armoured stealth vehicle with fat mesh tires that allow it to traverse any kind of rough terrain, while being almost immune to IEDs and other hazards.

Earlier, I mentioned how unwise it would be to place your entire military capability under the command of a single artificial intelligence. However, the ‘smarter’ an unmanned vehicle is, the more chance it has to survive, so an ongoing upgrade of its onboard processing power wouldn’t be unreasonable. But how smart do you want a drone to be? At what point will it assess its situation and realise its best chance of survival is to refuse to follow orders or defect to the enemy?

Assuming we somehow manage to avoid insurrection in the ranks, we face another potential problem when machines start upgrading machines on an ad hoc basis. We run the risk that sooner or later, they might become too complex for us to understand. We’ll lose the ability to repair our own creations, as they diverge into a multitude of sub-species, each with its particular specialisms and evolutionary history. What started out as a tank might come back to us as a swarm of complex drones or a slick of nanotechnological goop. At that point, even if they don’t evolve the intelligence to become disloyal, could we still really claim to be in control of them? If we can’t understand how they work, can we trust them to make the life-or-death decisions that are necessary on a battlefield? If an unmanned vehicle decides the success of its mission would be increased by the neutralisation of civilian targets, would we be able to convince it otherwise?

Some of you may remember the talking bomb in the movie Dark Star, which discovers philosophy, decides it’s god, and with the words, “Let there be light,” detonates while still attached to the ship that should have dropped it. That is something we definitely want to avoid.

We also want to avoid the situation described in Philip K. Dick’s story ‘Second Variety’, where the few remaining human soldiers on both sides of a conflict discover that their automated weapons have gained sentience and joined forces, and are now lying to their former masters about the progress of a war that’s no longer happening.

Leon Trotsky claimed that, “War is the locomotive of history.” If our unmanned vehicles go on to evolve beyond us, then perhaps war will also provide the future of the locomotive.

This article first appeared in The Engineer magazine.

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Victorian Rocketmen

My eye was recently caught by A profile of the Victorian railway pioneer, Robert Stephenson, who is probably best known as the designer of the innovative steam locomotive Rocket, which won the Rainhill Trials and achieved the distinction of being involved in the first railway fatality after it struck and killed an MP who was standing on the tracks.

Stephenson designed railways in the United Kingdom, Columbia, and Egypt, and bridges, such as the Britannia Bridge across the Menai Straits between mainland Wales and Anglesey. Like his friends, Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Richard Trevithick, he was one of that breed of Victorian engineer who were seemingly able to turn their talents toward any challenge, be it steam locomotives, railway bridges, or steamships.

Brunel, famous for his railways, steamships, tunnels and bridges, was also responsible for designing prefabricated hospitals, forceps, viaducts, and Paddington Station.

With such talent in play, the science fiction writer in me can’t help but wonder what might have happened if circumstances had been subtly different.

For instance, what might have happened if Stephenson and Brunel had been recruited by the military? With their knowledge of steam-powered locomotion, it is not unreasonable to imagine they might have produced the first tanks to the battlefield decades before their actual debut appearance in World War I. How that would have affected history is a question for the scholars, but it’s not hard to imagine such an innovation kicking off an arms race between Great Britain and the other imperial European powers, and thereby precipitating the Great War in the late 1800s rather than the early 1900s.

The same goes for Brunel’s revolutionary steamships. When the ss Great Britain was launched in 1843, she was more than just the first iron-hulled steamship; she was also the largest vessel afloat. At a time when the majority of the world’s warships were still constructed of wood and reliant on wind power to get around, she could have cut a mean swathe had she been equipped for battle instead of passenger transport. And if the Admiralty had commissioned another two or three identical vessels and installed cannons, Britannia really would have ruled the waves—at least, until the other powers caught up with the technology.

But these changes, while interesting to consider, aren’t really all that world-shaking. Had they happened, it’s likely our present would look much the same as it does now. All that would be different would be that a few conflicts happened slightly earlier. The general progression of history wouldn’t have been unduly affected. It is only when we start to consider weaponry that there is the potential for drastic change.

Imagine for a moment that Stephenson and Brunel are building a warship. Would these great minds not also turn their attention to increasing its firepower?

The aeolipile, also known as Hero’s Engine, dates back to the 1st century AD. Considered by some as the first steam engine, it consists of a radial turbine spun by steam jets. Using the same principle, it may have been possible to produce a steam-powered projectile—either some form of rocket or a torpedo—capable of delivering a devastating payload.

From there, it’s not a huge stretch to imagine such technology following a similar developmental process as the Nazi rocketry programme, with larger and larger steam-powered rockets being built. In our timeline, it took 24 years from the end of WWII to the first moon landing. If you apply a similar timescale here, driven by a Cold War between the British and German Empires (and maybe influenced by Jules Verne’s 1865 popular classic, From Earth to the Moon), we can wildly speculate about Victorian astronauts in orbit by the turn of the century, and maybe a moon landing by the early 1910s.

Now, I’m picturing a union jack on the surface of the moon, with two astronauts wearing cumbersome diving suits, their air supplied by thick hoses that run back into their spacecraft—a huge contraption built of riveted steel plate and powered by the exhaust from gigantic coal-fired boilers within.  Now, that would have changed history!

The discovery of nuclear power would have led to steam rockets of increased efficiency and power and, by now, people might have been living on Mars for the past seventy-five years. There might be half a dozen settlements on the moon, and great steel ships lumbering out towards Jupiter and Saturn—and all because two Victorian gentlemen were persuaded to concentrate on the military rather than civilian applications of their inventions.

This article first appeared in The Engineer magazine.

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