This week Squadron Leader Michael Spencer uses science fiction to theorise on the struggles, and solutions, that a future force may encounter in this contribution to our #AirForce2021 series. Connectivity has evolved to such that living within the global network is a necessity to survive. Yet the trackability of such a network means that militaries are being forced out of the system in order to maintain security and secrecy. There’s only one little problem - how can you function outside the network which controls every critical function? Not only that - how can one find a solution outside of the system they’ve lived in their entire life? Hal and iKnow are tasked with finding out.
The latest 66G network further improved our daily lives ensuring even more connectivity and interaction than ever, with each other and the globalised neural information hive. Immersed in so much electromagnetic energy from electronic systems, connectivity with the network is not only inescapable, it’s mandatory. The wifi coverage now encompasses the entire globe up to the orbital environment. Dependence on electronic devices has flooded the surface world in an electromagnetically charged environment. Freespace is no longer a viable medium for the electromagnetic signals needed to transport data and control signals that maintain life and order on Earth. Surface life has become critically dependent on the shared lines-of-communication established between the megacities, insulated from the hazardous radiation and electromagnetic interference making free space unusable.
Cued by the sun disappearing over the horizon, I awoke to begin my nightly scan for any new orders to my nightly tasking. The Superior has sent me a new task signal. I immediately engage the Superior and, after a clean handshake, we engage in a secure dialogue.
"We need you to solve a problem for us. All the lines-of-communication interconnect to enable an efficient and globalised transportation grid which has been surveyed with quantum-measured accuracy. It is easy to determine a position anywhere these lines by referencing the digital markers meted throughout the shared grid which provides for an efficient logistical movements system. But it also makes it difficult to move military payloads in secrecy without attracting unwanted attention," laments the Superior. "We need a future contingency option for navigating our combat logistics or weapons payloads through the electromagnetic soup that is swamping the world outside the shared lines-of-communication!"
I respond to the Superior, "Without connectivity to 66G or the satellite navigation system, there is no design solution available for any conventional vehicle to be trusted to autonomously navigate a trajectory outside the grid. I am uncertain that a drone can accurately determine its mobile location, relative to its destination at any time, without connecting to 66G."
"There is an advantage to being able to navigate payloads both overtly and covertly outside our conventional transport grid," comments the Superior. Autonomously, the strength of the signal and security setting on our line suddenly stepped up, ensuring the impending message was protected against interference or corruption.
"Hal, I want you to use your 9001-series algorithms to identify alternative capability options to reliably navigate a vehicle independently of the 66G network or satellite signals. Maybe you can investigate the methods that the Ancients used before the Singularity. You have until the end of the night to recommend an option before the daily dawn disrupts our communications. Out." Once again, a sudden change in status indicated that the Superior had closed the line of communication.
The secured message exchange with my Superior seemed to last longer than a few moments. After the handshake protocol, I uplinked my digitised signature to acknowledge the task. As my signature is recognised, the authoritative files with all task details and available data related to the navigation problem appear in my inbox.
I see that 'iKnow' has arrived to commence the night's domestic work at my home address. iKnow is my contracted talking ambulatory home assistant. Our working relationship represents the latest achievements in the best of human-machine integration. iKnow doesn't have the research capacity or analytical literacy of a machine but is an essential asset for keeping cables connected and removing the dust from difficult to access connectors to keep systems running safely and efficiently during the nightly work activities and daily rest periods.
iKnow turns and looks at me with a friendly demeanour. "Would you like a refresh to declutter your mind before starting the night's work?" he asks empathetically. "The file sizes indicate you have quite a task ahead of you."
iKnow’s multitude of facial muscles produces infinite variations of expression and emotion upon its complicated face, causing distraction and clutter. I chose aural communications to minimise the noise.
"Thank you, iKnow. That will not be necessary," I respond. "I need you to assist with a research task tonight. Will you please recover the files on the oral histories recorded by the Ancients. I want to explore how they navigated their vehicles before the Singularity." The Ancient’s oral histories had long since been digitised for rapid search protocols providing an excellent starting point to find technology options and techniques that might have been used for navigation in the past.
I instruct iKnow, "Please turn up the carbon converter in the server room. The processors will be working to capacity tonight and I do not want to increase the carbon footprint of this household beyond my allocated annual tax limit." After the Singularity, the capabilities to mine, simulate, and process data increased by a few orders of magnitude. However, the technology benefits of having better artificial intelligence do not outweigh the heat generated by thinking machines that, accumulatively, result in unwanted changes in the climate.
I set the research period to cover several centuries before the Singularity and bias the outputs towards seeking non-networked and non-electronic navigation systems. I modify the heuristic search algorithm to perform a statistical analysis of keywords associated with the search. The orally recorded words are sometimes difficult to understand since their usage, meaning, and context have changed over time. Therefore, they need to be translated into text and correlated against a database of historical usage of languages.
It doesn't take long for the algorithm to scan the oral histories and identify popularly referenced words from the voice recordings. First, the most popular technical terms are statistically determined and autonomously converted from voice to digital text. Next, the most popular words begin appearing in a list displayed on the monitor. I immediately highlight these unfamiliar words and enter them into the Core search engine to find their possible meanings.
iKnow leans towards the monitor and glances across the results displayed on a wall monitor and laughs. "'Sex tent'? I think that this might sound right, but it was maybe converted into the wrong text. I think this is meant to be 'sextant.' Steer your search towards 'sextant'," says iKnow.
I enter the revised inputs into the search engine, and the rectified search output appears on the screen.
This search result is more logical. iKnow deserves praise for identifying a flaw in my logic. "iKnow, I made an error. Your suggestion to revise the search inputs has improved the quality of the outputs and will prevent unnecessary waste of carbon credits," I state in appreciation.
iKnow quickly makes a deduction, "The celestial objects in the sky appear to an observer on the ground as a relatively unchanging pattern of celestial bodies that moves over the horizon with the rotation of the Earth."
I reply, "iKnow, this is important, but I don't understand why? How can positional information be communicated from distant stars? The signals would be so weak. The background electromagnetic interference is so severe that it is no longer viable to even use the signals from the artificial satellites that are nearer than the celestial bodies."
"The stars do not 'communicate' anything!" says iKnow. He raises both of his arms towards the ceiling, extending his index fingers towards two different imaginary points in the ceiling. "Hal, it's easy. Look at the reference to the 'sextant'. It was a mechanical tool used to non-cooperatively measure angles with the stars and deduce a position on the ground. The positions of celestial objects have been accurately mapped for centuries. The movements of the stars in space are insignificant to an observer on Earth. You can, therefore, navigate non-electronically by looking at the stars."
"iKnow this may sound like a viable solution, but the celestial bodies are only visible at night. We need a system that can be trusted to function day and night," I say and search for a solution.
"The Sun is visible in the day, and it is a star," says iKnow. "Furthermore, if one knows where to look, using a star map, one can see the brighter celestial bodies using augmented-optics, potentially looking beyond the visual spectrum. The Ancient Navigators were trained with the sextant to make such angular observations of celestial objects."
This changes the context of the search results, "A human Navigator knows to look up to find the celestial objects. How might an automaton know where to look and not confuse bright lights with celestial objects?" I asked.
"Use gravity," says iKnow. "You may not understand this, but human operators can naturally use gravity to sense the vertical and know how to stand erect. Since gravity decreases with vertical distance, a machine can be configured with a gravimeter to know when it is sitting horizontally because both ends have the same force acting on them. When both ends show the maximum difference in gravity effects, it points directly away from the Earth's centre, orientated vertically and looking skywards. Easy."
The decision nodes in my neural network are converging. "A recommended solution is approaching 99.5% feasibility. A 100% solution would need to operate in the environment above the weather. The combination of using a surveyed star map, a gravimeter to look skywards, augmented optics for day and night functionality, and angular measurements to known stars seem to be a feasible way to deduce the observer's position on Earth. Furthermore, if multiple observations are taken over time, measured by an accurate clock, it is possible to deduce speed. This seems to be recovering a solution from the old world to reuse in the modern world."
"iKnow, we make a smart team," I inform iKnow. "I will uplink this recommendation to the Superior before the new day breaks. Consider your mission here tonight as complete." Next, I initiate the handshake protocol with iKnow to determine the amount of effort and oxygen he expended on this task for remuneration purposes. He inputs the data and terminates the handshake signal.
iKnow opens the door to exit the room. Before stepping out, he turns and asks, "Hey, that was a good session tonight. It’s funny though, as a HAL9001 you’re a significant improvement over the 9000. So why can't you remember my name?” He smiles, “See you tomorrow night, HAL." The door is secured, and the air filter is disabled after he leaves.
"I'm afraid I can't do that, Dave."
Squadron Leader Michael Spencer is an Air Force Reservist employed in the Defence COVID-19 Taskforce and the AFHQ RPAS Team acquiring the MQ-9B SkyGuardian. He initially served as a Navigator in manually-flown long-range maritime patrols on P-3C Orions. His early operational experiences in anti-ship and anti-submarine warfare led to diverse career paths into international military relations, weaponeering and guided weapons acquisitions, concepts and acquisitions for space sensors and space-based systems, and force-level joint integration planning. He has completed postgraduate studies at UNSW Canberra, Royal Military College of Canada, and the US National Security Space Institute and has authored papers on future air and space concepts and technology disruption, including articles for The Central Blue. He promotes interests in space through professional memberships as an Associate Fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics & Astronautics and member of the Space Law Council - Australia & New Zealand.