Battlefield Science: Laser-Guided “Smart” Rifles

Endgadget’s write-up of the laser-guided rifle raises harrowing questions for the future of combat and the widening gap between the haves and have-nots.

Guided or assisted targeting is not new in videogames, but it is a gamechanger in real life. In the face of computer-assisted targeting, the imperative to fire and move will likely become even more pronounced; any delay at all may allow opponents to lock on from even long distances. And even then, this target assistance module can potentially track an object moving 30 mph at a mile’s distance, so movement alone will be no protection from unseen, unerring death from afar.

While history suggests there is no end to war, and that armies in conflict will adapt to this technology, it seems hard to imagine that armies without “smart” rifles will fare very well in the interim against those armies that do. At least, until a neutralizing technology is discovered.

Modern Combat: Choppers, ATVs and hit-and-runs

Somewhat questionable source and tone notwithstanding, here’s a fascinating, almost sci-fi like description of evolving combat methods as the SAS takes on ISIS via choppers, ATVs, and guerrilla tactics.

While no one part of these tactics is strikingly new, it’s still interesting to see reports of combat forces evolving and incorporating a variety of tools and methods for the modern battlefield (and for specific tactical needs). Further, it’s a striking counterpoint to the idea that drones and robots will take over warfare in future – clearly, there is still room and demand for literal “boots on the ground.”

Finally, it is interesting to compare the combat styles and reports in the Near East as relates to ISIS with the reporting on eastern Ukraine – in one (the latter), the older notion of battlefronts, territory under control, and linear offensives appears still to hold, but in the latter (ISIS/Near East), these are much more fluid concepts, with debatable relevance.

Battlefield Science?: Internet-linked telepathy

In an absurdly sci-fi development, researchers at the University of Washington have managed – in very limited fashion, with somewhat modest results – to send a brain signal from one person to another, using the internet to convey the sender’s thoughts.

While it is obviously early days with this technology – a 25%-83% accuracy rate is hardly conclusive per se – this is still very exciting, because it suggests that the realm of telepathy (albeit internet-delivered telepathy) may not be quite so far-fetched. That having been said, the current result is very much like the first word of a language yet to be developed – before this can become useful, an entirely new lexicon of brain usage and translation signals will need to developed.

At the same time, the battlefield implications of a thoroughly useful, consistent, soundless link can probably not be overstated – a unit, reacting in real time as a single, coherent, flexible entity could be a very powerful thing, and would be much harder to ambush.

Unless, of course, they lost reception mid-firefight.

Battlefield Science: Instant Wound Clotting

In tech and medicine news today, a new solution for stopping bullet wounds on the battlefield has been announced: XStat, a rapidly expanding sponge that fills the wound and stops bleeding, could stop bleeding, accelerate healing, and save lives on the battlefield.

This is only the latest in a series of recent battlefield innovations which are accelerating the advent of futuristic battlefield scenarios, from AI to Virtual Reality Overlays to killer robots and mechanization. But of all of those updates, this is the first I’ve seen which creates the opportunity to save lives – instead of providing more efficient means of taking them.

Did Amtrak just find the answer to Space/Time travel?

I was as blown away as anyone by the speed of Amtrak’s response in creating its writer residency program. The quick turn of events, from a quick retweet to a full-blown shot in the arm for the image and relevance of the ailing service, was yet another example of how powerful the internet and social media truly is.

However, that story is well-told and, frankly, boring.

What is interesting about the Amtrak story is that it has allowed the company to take what has typically been seen as a drawback to its service (namely the time required to travel from one place to the next) and turn it into a benefit. It has enabled writers to drop out, plug in, enjoy the scenery – and go to work. And that, for the right person, can be a powerful thing.

Being a sci-fi enthusiast, I immediately thought of the next step – the possible implications for space travel. Space is vast, as has often been said as well, and we are typically used to regarding this as a massive drawback. And, truth be told, it very likely is an obstacle that we may never learn to overcome.

But, just for a second, imagine a universe in which we do travel between the stars. In this world, science fiction has typically employed one of two conceits to overcome the time gap: the first, faster-than-light travel, decreases the time between two points though wormholes, warp drives, or other bending of space. The second, cryostasis, requires freezing the human body in time to offset the aging process as the vessel travels within the constraints of current ability and physics.

But perhaps, inspired by Amtrak, there is a third option: maybe it is possible that, instead of avoiding or attempting to overcome the time barrier of the journey, humanity instead embraces and celebrates it? In the aftermath of digital age, where artistic, scientific, or any other works might not require massive storage, or heavy materials for their creation, might not the long voyages in space offer potential to think, to collaborate, to produce and to refine? Might we not achieve our greatest masterworks while in limbo, waiting to begin our future on a foreign world?

Maybe, as Amtrak is currently suggesting, a little extra time between points isn’t such a bad thing after all.

Things that are surprisingly sci-fi (but don’t get credit for it) – Part 3: Global Sports Competitions

With this year’s Confederations Cup in full swing, it’s time to tip the hat of science fiction to the phenomenon of global sporting events.

While in theory, we’ve had ‘global’ sports for at least a century now, the reality is that the early World Cups and Olympics were predominantly regional affairs – as athletes tended to be men of leisure (or college athletes, or both) in the early days, they tended to represent only wealthier nations, or at the least, only the wealthier classes of those nations.

While the number of nations participating increased steadily through the 1970s and 80s, the politics and ideologies of the Cold War overshadowed geographic and ethnic identities, putting the global nature of the competitions into the background.   While it would be difficult to pinpoint the emergence of truly global sporting events, the emergence of a single worldwide football market might be one milestone. With stars from Japan and Africa increasingly complementing and supplanting the traditional European and Latin American superpowers – and with the creation of an economically viable professional soccer league in the United States – it is safe to say that football had become a global sport by the mid 1990s.

Other sports have followed, with global tournaments in baseball and cricket being created and expanded, and the Olympics have increasingly become a two-week festival of international excitement and competition. NewsCorp has been an aggressive part of this expansion, of course, packing its satellites with live sports content from rugby to cricket to american football.

But why is any of this scifi? For two reasons: on the one hand is the creation of single, unified global market. And on the other is the larger picture:  humans from every corner of the world, meeting on a truly global scale to determine the fastest, the most strongest, and the best among them. Where the medieval version of this concept involved bloodshed and pillage, we now have a peaceful (generally speaking), cooperative competition, played with the goal of crowning a true world champion.

Because once we start thinking peacefully in terms of planetary supremacy, we are not far from considering new world. If for no other reason than to expand the TV market!

 

 

Things that are surprisingly science fiction (but don’t get credit for it) – Part 2: Shipping Crates aka Intermodal containers

shipping container Costa RicaOn the surface, they don’t seem like much: four dirty, sometimes rusted metal walls and a simple locking mechanism. They are everywhere – in harbors, on the highway, on train cars, on construction sites – so much so that they are almost invisble.

But their ubqiuity also underscores their importance and versatility. By standardizing dimensions and making the same container transportable via multiple methods, the humble shipping container makes it possible to pack a unit in Chapel Hill and know – with certainty – that that unit can be delivered in Bangalore, or Murmansk, or Antarctica (whether it arrives or not is another story). This is incredible because it flies in the face of thousands of years of societal development, whereby incompatible systems flouted globalization, trade, and advancement at every stage. As recently as the 19th century, Russia and Europe still boasted different gauges of railroad track (not to mention the Northern and Southern States in the United States!), preventing the easy flow of goods and creating very distinct cultural mindsets (while the Civil War is better known in the West, Russia’s Westernizers vs. Russophile debate has arguably had more impact on the 20th century. That it is neither dead nor buried can be seen in the policies of Messrs. Putin and Medvedev today).

More than that, the shipping crate is hardy and internally customizable, making it possible to ship refrigerated foodstuffs on the same vessel as heavy machinery or cloth goods. As a result, trade routes are simplified, with larger ships taking generic boxes filled with unique content to one port and smaller boats and trucks ferrying it on. Further, the shipping crate makes it possible to deliver packages of survival items to remote locations with greatly reduced effort. It allows humans to exist and thrive in inhospitable and improbable climates such as the deep sea, where cargo ships can hoist food, supplies, and housing onto barren, windswept platforms, or Antarctica, where tons and tons of supplies are delivered every year to allow habitation and research where it could never exist otherwise.

If we developed a space elevator tomorrow, or if we adopt railguns or use SpaceX on steroids or any form of mass cargo delivery system offworld, the shipping crate is where we would start in terms of packaging and consolidating cargo needing to head off world. It’s more than just logistics: this is modular thinking’s mascot. In theory, with five shipping crates and a solar cell, a human can live quite comfortably on Mars – or any other non-melting, non-crushingly pressurized body in the solar system. It is both the brick and mortar of human colonization, and it will be there when we move off-world.