Playing Our Way To the Future: Consumer Science and Technology goes Military

Last month, I spoke at a United States Army Training and Doctrine Command event billed as a mad scientist conference. That was actually quite an honor, and I enjoyed it more than I expected to, even though it was hard to spend three days thinking about threats based on new technology. I’ve got a blog entry up at my regular site that talks more about the conference, but suffice it to say I’ve been thinking about the military and science/science fiction. In the way of all attractive coincidences, I was also recently asked to write a military science fiction story. All that, and I’m basically a pacifist!

One thing that surprised me about the conference was the number of times that the military answer was to wait for the private sector to start or finish a technology. It’s a good answer; I just didn’t expect it – since most of my life I’ve had the impression that more technology flows from the military than into it. That’s the long way ‘round explanation of why I chose to write about technology flowing into the armed services.

What’s Happening

Soldiers have used video games for training for a while, and the US Army even releases its own video game (built on civilian gaming technology) called America’s Army, primarily to use as a recruitment tool. The UK has a version called “Start Thinking Soldier.” I also heard from a friend that the Marine Corps uses the popular game Halo for training. A recent Atlantic article describes soldiers using sim games to work on counterinsurgency skills.

The US Army is also experimenting with using a civilian-designed line of air guns called Airsoft rifles as training exercise equipment. They are designed to be close replicas to real guns, and apparently give soldiers an experience enough like handling a real rifle to be valuable in training. Getting hit with an air gun means you don’t have to guess if you’re “down” or not.

So military use of PlayStation3s for video gaming is expected at this point. But for what? According to an Economist article about the very topic of military use of consumer technology, the US Air Force just ordered 2,200 PlayStation3 consoles to link together into an open source supercomputer (and by the way, think about that as a scary way for enemies to get a supercomputer without having to bypass a bunch of laws about the sale of advanced US technology to certain countries).

Smartphone uses are also spilling onto the battlefield. Not only are there iPhone apps developed by and for the military, but Android may be getting out there, too. Raytheon is developing an application for use in the field called RATS that provides real-time battlefield intelligence.

My prediction?

The private sector is generally more agile at developing new technology than many public sector entities. Consumer-based technology is something a military recruit might understand the minute they begin their military career. So I expect that more and more consumer-based technology will start making its way in. After all, that’s probably what any insurgent enemy is using. That means the military needs to understand them and be at least as agile with them as the insurgents. I suspect we are coming to understand that.

We will, of course, continue to see technology flow out of the military to us as well.

Science Fiction and Military Technology

There is a lovely long list of military science fiction. The one that has made it furthest out into the mainstream is almost surely Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, so I had to mention that. There’s also Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War. There’s the Honor Harrington series (David Weber), and the Kris Longknife series (Mike Shepard). It even showed up again in the movie Avatar.

My favorite near-future military sf story is Sergeant Chip by Bradley Denton.

I’m sure I’ve missed a lot – I’d love to see some of your favorite military science fiction listed in comments.

And if this topic piqued your interest, here are a few more sites of interest:

Thanks for stopping in!


Brenda Cooper’s next science fiction novel, Wings of Creation, is out now from Tor Books. For more information, see her website!

3 thoughts on “Playing Our Way To the Future: Consumer Science and Technology goes Military”

  1. I enjoy Elizabeth Moon’s Serrano Legacy series. It was written in the 1990s and is set an unspecified distance away in the future but I suspect it’s in the range of 5 or 6 centuries.

  2. Near-future military SF: try Carlos Hernandez’s Fembot at DayBreak Magazine (which is basically a kind of follow-up to “Homeostasis” published here on Futurismic last July).

    Your own “Riding in Mexico” comes close (about civilian technology flowing into ‘military’ — or at least police force — use), even if the protagonist wants to join the Diplomatic Corps.

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