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World War Tech: “Ghost Fleet” Puts Silicon Valley On The Frontline

A new novel imagines the gadgetry of a future war between America and China that might be too realistic for comfort.

When August Cole and Peter W. Singer jumped on the phone with me, they were doing promotion for their technothriller Ghost Fleet. A well-received Tom Clancy-esque tale of a 2030 war between China and the United States, it boasts back-cover blurbs from Game of Thrones executive producer D.B. Weiss and Hunger Games producer Nina Jacobson, and has been making its way around Hollywood screenwriters’ inboxes. But a few days after our talk, Singer was headed to an unusual destination for a fiction writer: Washington D.C., to give a briefing to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey.

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Ghost Fleet tells the story of a Chinese invasion of Hawaii and of devastating attacks on America’s infrastructure, with liberal doses of space warfare, drug-like nootropic implants and pills, and omnipresent virtual reality. Among the book’s future hah-hah-but-not-really touches (The Oakland A’s rebrand as the Palo Alto @’s; resistance fighters in Hawaii use GoPro-like cameras to record attacks) is a larger story the rookie novelists hope to tell: That the United States’ next global war will be fought largely on the home front… and stranger that we can ever imagine.

From Think Tanks To Thrillers

While this is the first novel either Singer or Cole has written, both come from a long background in the area. Cole is a former defense reporter for the Wall Street Journal, and Singer is a strategist at the New America Foundation who wrote a popular nonfiction book on future warfare called Wired for War and consults for video games and television shows.

For the duo, a fiction book is a way to put forward their ideas about the future of war to a larger audience.

“There’s a plot, its a fictional story, but the book explores how certain technologies under development right now will likely be used in the real world, regardless of the plot coming true or not,” Singer told me. “ Take the controversy over killer robots and AI, for instance. Many of the most prominent figures in Silicon Valley recently signed a letter on it. Ghost Fleet is a novel, but it documents at least 21 different use cases of these technologies that are being worked on by the military right now.”

A large number of these use cases read like science fiction. Both sides employ Google Glass-like augmented reality glasses. American corporate computer systems are systematically hacked so they can be shut down by outside parties when the time comes. Brain-computer interfaces are used for purposes of interrogation, and lobster-like robots are used by Navy SEALS to assist American partisans who call themselves the “North Shore Mujahideen.”

In at least one of these cases, the science fiction is real. The lobster robot in the story, called “Butter,” is based on a number of projects including a proof-of-concept lobster-shaped robot called “Cheesecake” that was developed by Northeastern University for DARPA.

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The video below shows a rendering of the real-life “Butter” in action:

Tech, Silicon Valley, And The Next War

The DARPA mention isn’t a coincidence. While Silicon Valley futurists largely love the Pentagon tech think tank, Singer believes many of them forget it is a military organization.

“There are people directly taking money from DARPA for research who don’t want to realize the D in DARPA stands for defense,” he told me. “It’s not a bad thing, but that’s the reality of it. There are also companies which aren’t doing direct business with the military, but the military is a major consumer out there of their goods. You shouldn’t kid yourself in thinking that the military isn’t using consumer technology.”

One of the book’s major themes, in fact, is the tension between Silicon Valley, global multinationals, and the military establishment when a Pacific war comes. The supply chain of American tech companies disappears, most technological devices on the market are easily hacked and made useless, and the government begins recycling obsolete electronics for parts. After initial hesitation, Walmart and their massive logistics network join the war. An eccentric biotech billionaire, seemingly modeled in part on Richard Branson, Elon Musk, and several other quirky business icons, signs on in the war effort in an way that would make Sir Francis Drake proud.

“Detroit used to be center of the U.S. economy in World War II. In a future war, instead it would be places like Silicon Valley and Bentonville,” Cole added. Many of the questions the books asks in a non-technical, non-futurist context linger on the question of what happens to tech companies if there’s a military confrontation between the United States and China. One of the big questions, the authors wondered, is whether the loyalties of large multinationals lie with their founders, the country they are based in, or their shareholders.

Predicting The Future

In the end, Ghost Fleet is fiction, one that comes out of a rich vein of books predicting future wars. Hector Charles Bywater wrote a book in 1925 called The Great Pacific War that largely predicted the Pacific front in World War II, but there were just as many Cold War-era works of fiction predicting wars between the United States and the Soviet Union that obviously never happened. Regardless, the duo did create an interesting “Way to understand the future war context,” as they put it.

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Meanwhile, the pair will keep on explaining their work to a military that’s keenly interested, and speaking to the tech industry. A major subplot of the book centers on Silicon Valley’s origins in the naval dirigible industry; in fact, Google now leases the massive hangar where the Navy built dirigibles in World War II. Their message is simple: If there is a global war in the future, it might be up to Silicon Valley to lead the charge.

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect a quote by Singer on DARPA’s Defense Department roots that was originally attributed to Cole.