Object 62

Multiple Autonomous Element Supervisor

2039, Solstrand, Norway

A 2042 article from Illustrert Vitenskap, a Norwegian science magazine:

“You've got to cook the leaves the same day you pick them. You want a sharp, fresh taste, you know?”

I meet Ragnhild Egner on a small farm around an hour’s drive from Solstrand, Norway. She is gathering ingredients for that evening’s dinner at her house, where she will be hosting 16 guests. “I don't normally do much of this by hand, but I find it good to get outside once in a while. It's useful to train my helpers how to do things properly.” And, she adds, “It's nice to know that this is something I can do myself.”

Egner’s helpers are a motley collection of decommissioned military drones, now reprogrammed and refitted to perform the work of running a small restaurant, from whipping eggs and preparing desserts to waiting the tables. They aren't particularly smart, requiring regular supervision from Egner. Most good restaurants have far more autonomous and skilled robots, but in Egner’s case, the need for human supervision is the whole point.

In 2032, Egner had no inkling that she might run a restaurant. She had just graduated at the top of her class at the Norwegian Military Academy and immediately took up a position in the elite EU Rapid Reaction Task Force. As a ‘Multiple Autonomous Element Supervisor’ — a MAES — Lieutenant Egner was one of 290 officers responsible for deploying some of the EU’s most potent weapons of the time. Where typical 20th-century armies might have fielded hundreds of thousands of human soldiers complete with rifles, tanks, aircraft, artillery, all supported by bases the size of small towns, a single 21st-century MAES could control a networked group of hundreds of military drones and pods with surveillance and firepower capabilities exceeding that of a battalion-sized unit from a mere generation earlier.

At first, Egner struggled to fit into her new role. The force demanded a superhuman level of situational awareness from its officers, and the only way to achieve this was to surrender oneself to the senses and information provided by one's networked forces. Many supervisors simply couldn't adapt to this kind of extrasensory integration, but for those who could — which eventually included Egner — their drones felt almost like an extension of their will. Some psychologists believed that early exposure to intense strategy games aided the MAES integration process, waggishly suggesting that their battles "were won on the killing fields of Starcraft".

“It was incredibly stimulating," said Egner. "We were a new breed of soldiers. Smarter, faster, and better than the old guard. We could come and go from anywhere in the world in a matter of days, and after Chechnya, we wore the mantle of the EU’s moral superiority.”

Her skills were put to the test in Abkhazia in 2039. What first appeared as a peaceful movement for secession soon erupted into violent revolution, during which a chain of messy coups caused the nation's military security certificates to pass between three different leaders in a single week. Local infrastructure was rapidly destroyed, degraded, or jammed into uselessness, leading to a humanitarian disaster for millions.

EU and AU rapid reaction forces arrived within four days. With peacekeeping efforts still ongoing in Russia, the EU was stretched thin, and Egner was given responsibility for a larger element than usual. It wasn't long before mistakes were made. Insurgents escaped; intelligence wasn't properly exchanged between MAES; drone units were red-lined, requiring extended repair.

What came next, however, was much worse. Egner explains:

"Every day we'd classify areas as low, moderate, or high risk for insurgent activity. The town I was watching had been flagged as a high risk. We didn't want another Sicily, so my drones' pattern-matchers were on a hair-trigger.

"When we detected sudden movement by hundreds of people in an area with hospitals and schools nearby... well, the drones had already started cycling up their weapons. I remember seeing a couple of warning icons about uncertain hostile intent, but there just wasn't enough time to check. So I withheld my veto."

Automatic and autonomous weapons have been used since the late 20th century, with the US, Unified Korea, and Israel among the vanguard. At first, they were primarily deployed as stationary defensive systems with an explicit human decision required for a fire order. But bit by bit, they expanded their role. They gained wheels and legs and wings, and moved from defensive to support to attack positions. Ever-cheaper costs, ever-broadening reach, and politicians’ desire to eliminate war casualties saw their numbers rise and rise.

Crucially, the weapons became more autonomous, able to independently observe, orient, decide, and act, vastly speeding up and magnifying their abilities. Requiring an explicit decision from a human slowed them down, and so that requirement was gradually abandoned. Human supervisors no longer pressed the trigger; instead, they were left only with a veto to stop their weapons from firing.

"I'd been on watch for 26 hours straight, and most of that time I was hopped up on cognitive enhancers. I didn't have enough time to pay attention to the cultural briefing or to review the handover package. But I should have. I know the courts say it wasn't my fault, but then, whose fault was it?"

Having decided that there was an imminent threat to nearby civilians, Egner's drones pinpointed 322 targets with a sonic interdiction order. After five seconds of that order being ignored, the drones opened fire, killing 45 and injuring 201. Eleven seconds afterwards, high-altitude surveillance cameras finally determined that the majority of the targets were civilians who had been startled by a nearby gas explosion. Forty seconds later, when the data had filtered up to her superiors, Egner was removed from duty. It was the single largest killing of civilians that decade, and led directly towards the EU's suspension of operations in the region.

Egner's defence rested on the fact that she had been placed in an overwhelming situation with impossible demands, that in high-speed situations her drones had more control than she did. Even her training had emphasised that she should stay out of the way of her weapons; she was a supervisor, not a controller. Ultimately her argument prevailed, with her entire line of drones being reprogrammed or destroyed.

She left the military and returned to her home in Bergen, Norway. Despite the fact that she had never been on the battlefield, she began suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, with frequent mood-swings and profound depression. The dark side of extrasensory integration meant that once those extra senses had been removed, a phantom pain lingered.

Historically, one way of treating military PTSD sufferers was through activities such as ice climbing and wilderness trips, which combined intense physical challenges with stress reduction. In modern times, human-powered flight, beanstalk climbing, and sims involving warriors from other eras have proved more effective.

None of these was suitable for Egner. As she obsessively looked up profiles of people she had killed, matched via DNA and public records, she couldn't stop thinking about who they were, what they were doing, who they might have become. She re-ran sims constantly, thinking about how she could have avoided the deaths.

As her depression worsened, her therapy team came up with the idea of asking Egner to manage a small restaurant using her drone supervision skills; it would be challenging, but pleasantly monotonous. It would also go some way towards restoring her extra senses in a safe environment. Egner was initially flummoxed — she was a competent cook but had never been interested in running a restaurant — but in the absence of anything else to do, she reluctantly accepted.

Three years on, Egner is thriving in her new environment. She keeps a closer eye on her helpers these days, perhaps out of caution, but also out of a desire for creative control. Due to the singular nature of the Abkhazia debacle, she finds it hard to find anyone who understands her experience. It's not clear whether Egner will ever be at peace with what happened and her confused role in it. It could take a lifetime.