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Marine reflects on AI’s ‘incredible change’ for military as he looks to future with new novel

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May 13, 2024

The world may end up breaking into tech alliances as a guiding political issue in the years to come, according to a retired American serviceman-turned-novelist as detailed in his new book. 

“I think for us, particularly with regards to the technology that we’re imagining and the incredible power it unleashes, it just becomes obvious that the real source of national power might not be military or even economic, but could quickly become technological power,” Elliot Ackerman told Fox News Digital. 

“Whoever gets there first is going to so stratospherically outpace their rivals that they’ll be able to dominate as a nation,” he said. 

Ackerman served in the U.S. Marine Corps for eight years, working as both an infantry and special operations officer with tours in the Middle East and Central Asia. Following the conclusion of his service, he pursued a career as a novelist, drawing on his experience to write acclaimed fiction. 

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A few years ago, Ackerman started working with retired U.S. Navy Admiral James Stavridis, who wanted to look at the future of war with their novel “2034: A Novel of the Next World War.” The book examined how a naval battle between the U.S. and China could play out in (now) a decade’s time. 

Their newest collaboration, “2054,” goes even further and looks at a world still recognizable but visibly and deeply transformed by technological advances, including artificial intelligence (AI) and burgeoning modern tech ideas such as gene manipulation. 

For example, the Japan of this future is one that “leveraged artificial intelligence, robotics, and quantum computing to compensate for a diminished workforce, often trading with India, which offered a vast market for its technologies” – clearly drawing on current concerns about population decline in East Asian nation. 

“AI can enhance decision-making processes, increase the speed and precision of operations, improve surveillance and reconnaissance, optimize logistics and resource management, and facilitate advanced simulations for training and strategizing,” Retired U.S. Navy Admiral James Stavridis said in an interview about the book with El Blog

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However, he noted that “technical challenges include ensuring reliability and security from cyber threats” and that “legal and regulatory considerations regarding the use of AI in combat, and the challenge of maintaining a balance between machine autonomy and human oversight” remain key to the trajectory of the technology in human hands. 

The novel also focuses repeatedly on the quest to achieve the Singularity, defined by the novel as “an ‘intelligence explosion,’ the equivalent of thousands of years of biological evolution crammed into months or even weeks when machine and human learning integrated into a single consciousness.” 

“It’s a story about great power competition, and that is the oldest story out there,” Ackerman said. “Except, in our case, it’s not an arms race or even necessarily nation-versus-nation war – it’s a technological race and a nation versus nation race to get to the singularity first, so we wanted to tell a story that is both engaging with these very old themes but looking into the future.” 

Ackerman explained that his time as a journalist meant that he always had “kind of one foot in the tech space” and another in the international and domestic political spaces. The novel “2054,” therefore, provided a chance to fuse those interests and look at the way they would impact each other in the coming years. 

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Ackerman reiterated the general thought that the inclusion of AI will prove a “force multiplier for militaries” and will “fundamentally change the way that we fight wars, from targeting to command and control.” 

However, he raised concerns about the ethical issues that will remain at the heart of AI use, especially regarding “who or what controls kinetic systems in the U.S. military.” 

“Who gets to decide to pull the trigger?” Ackerman asked. “Who gets to decide who uses lethal force? Is it always going to be a human? Or, sometimes, will those authorities be delegated to algorithms and AI in order to speed up response times?”

“These are all really big questions that are being posed right now, and I think we’re living through an age of incredible change in the military as we speak,” he added. “Look at what’s happening in Ukraine: There’s a very, very different war than the ones I fought in 10 years ago.” 

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The novel contains a number of quality-of-life technological advances, such as the predominance of suborbital flight to speed up travel, allowing characters to traverse the world in only a few hours. The ideas may have provided plot convenience but create a strong sense of world-building and help connect the present to the future presented in the novel. 

“We spent a lot of time talking about how the book would feel: What are the nods we’re going to make towards technology that show the passage of time between now and the future, and what things are going to remain the same?” he explained. 

“It’s always this process of trying to extrapolate what the technological changes are going to be, but also doing it in a way that serves the story and doesn’t become a distraction,” he added. 

Throughout the conversation, Ackerman dances along a line that betrays a central tension: The desire to find and provide answers that comes from his time as a journalist, against the novelist drive to pose questions and provoke thought. 

“I try to write the types of books that I enjoy reading, and the types of books that I enjoy reading often leave me when I shut the book asking myself questions, not being served up answers,” Ackerman said. 

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