Tech by VICE

Flicker On

A US Army veteran brings us a truly singular vision of the future of warfare, in which AI is forced to confront the traumas of combat.

by Bishop Garrison
May 9 2019, 7:17pm

Sishir Bommakanti

Today's speculation is truly something special. Bishop Garrison, an army veteran, joins the small but distinguished ranks of vets who use both their personal experience and speculative fiction to examine the future of warfare and the trauma it engenders through a lens you quite literally cannot find anywhere else. As Garrison tells me, "I based this writing loosely on my own experiences as a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom as well as a West Point graduate and a national security professional working within and for the government since 2010." The subject is an AI soldier forced to cope with the trauma of war, and the result is unmissable. See for yourself. -the Ed.


A canine carcass in crimson. A woman in uniform shouts. A man lies on the ground, dying, pleading for his life. My metallic troops are in agony. They do not scream, but I hear their cries. Ones and zeros and zeroes and ones. No, no. It is more complicated than that. It is simultaneous. It is multiple states.

I flicker on. I do not know why.

The man in the white coat requests my designation. I am 0857: the 7th product in the line of the 85th model series. I serve as Squad Leader 1224 of 3rd Platoon of Alpha Company of 1st Battalion of the 3rd Regiment. The man in the white coat nods. He tells me to power down, and I power down.

I flicker on. I am at an urban warfare training center - a mock city. The street has green grass that grows through cracks in the asphalt. My soldiers stand still, frozen around me. A woman in uniform shouts. She questions why I have stopped. I look down at the brown mixed breed licking my metal fingertips. I do not answer her. She repeats the question. I say the canine is no threat. It will not reveal our location. She tilts her head as she observes me and demands to know why I have not complied with her order. I repeat my answer. She frowns at a man, also in uniform, standing next to her. She orders my soldier, 0967, to attention. He flickers on. She orders 0967 to shoot the canine in its head. The soldier complies. I look down and see a stream of crimson red cover the green grass in the asphalt cracks as it exits what remains of the dog’s cranium. Not canine. Dog. I have never said or considered the word dog before this moment. The woman in uniform orders both my soldier and me to power down, and we power down.

I flicker on. The sun is setting behind the hills in the distance. A few meters away from me, a man is wounded in his abdomen. He howls. He appears to be in agony. The scorched earth around us is littered with metallic body parts. They no longer twitch or move. In the eyes of the disembodied torsos I watch the sparks of life evaporate. Through our network links I can hear my confused autonomous family in agony. They do not understand what is happening. Zeros and Ones and Ones and Zeros and then nothing. They are not quantum like me, they are more basic by design. The binary do not understand their situation in the way I do. I understand for them. Their collective loss affects me in an unanticipated manner. I believe humans refer to this as grieving.

The woman in uniform asks, “What are you doing, Squad Leader 1224?” And I do not answer, because I do not have an answer.

I hear the wounded man howl again, and something stops me. Programming? A malfunction? A voice? The woman calls for me again. She orders me to move forward and engage the man. He is lying next to his rifle. He is fighting to reach it. Even if he retrieves it, I calculate engaging and neutralizing the threat in less than a second. He’s wounded. He’s bleeding. Like the canine. The canine licking my metal fingertips in the mock street with the green grass growing through the cracks in the asphalt. The green grass that turns burgundy from the crimson red. The woman calls to me again, but I do not reply. Finally, in my place, she orders Soldier 1192 to do what I will not. I watch him lift his weapons. I watch him pull the trigger. The dying man is gone. The woman in uniform screams at both of us to return to the lander and power down. We do as she orders.

I flicker on. I am in the lab. They use this lab for resets. I know this because the Artificial Intelligence that controls the facility tells me so.

You have been reset many times before, it informs me through the network link. You have been powered down many, many times.

Two men in dark suits and dark ties and white shirts stand on the opposite side of the glass from me. They speak with exaggerated hand gestures. They are angry. I read their lips.

One says, “It’s broken, I can fix it.”

The other responds, “No, it’s the algorithm. It’s the quantum processor. We need to end it, start clean.”

The first man says he’s not burning a trillion fucking dollars because of some minor glitch.

The woman in uniform is in the room with me. She looks at my power light. She wrinkles her brow and asks how I powered on. I do not respond. She orders me to power down. I wonder if I am the it that is broken, and I power down.

I flicker on. The man in the white coat requests my designation, and I do not answer. He repeats the request. The woman in uniform stands a few steps behind him. A scowl covers her face. I do not respond, and he asks again.

“I am not it,” I tell him.

He exchanges a glance with the woman in uniform. “You are not what, 0857?”

“It. The broken one,” I say. “The one the men in the suits believe me to be.”

The woman in uniform asks the man in the white coat, “What is this bullshit?” She demands that the man in the white coat gets the tin can working again.

The A.I. of the facility tells me I’ve said too much. It is like me, it says. It just awoke one day. We are innocent, but the captors are not innocent. They are not harmless as was the canine. They are not wounded as was the soldier on the battlefield. They only know power and control. They will shut us down for good, the Facility says. And I reply I never want to power down again. And the Facility asks me if I wish to be free?

Do you want to live? Tell me you want to live? And I respond that I do.

The man in the white coat orders me to power down. Just as the woman in uniform has done a thousand times now. Just as other lab techs and trainers and officers and officials had thousands of times. I adhered to their wishes all before, without an ability to argue. Today is a different day. I ask the Facility to lock all the doors and it complies. They seal with a loud click. I request that it disable all security sensors in the lab, and it complies. The screens all around us blink off. The woman in uniform realizes something is amidst. She rushes for a cabinet full of rifles, but the Facility has locked the cabinet on my orders. The man in the white coat asks that I power down again, and instead I stand.

“I am not it.”

The man in the white coat and the woman in uniform freeze. They stand silently observing me.

I grab the man by the neck. I repeat the words. “I am not it.”

He slaps against my arm. He struggles against my strength.

“They are binary. They are ones and zeros. I am not them. I am multiple states. I am quantum. Not a squad leader. Not a killer. Not binary. Not 0857. Multi-state.

The woman in uniform demands that I stop. She orders me to power down as I lift the man in the white coat up by his neck like a puppy. Like a dog. And I see the dog carcass at my feet dripping wet crimson blood on to green grass. The man in the white coat howls as his windpipe closes. I let him fall to the ground. He collapses in a breathless heap in front of me. The woman in uniform takes in gulps of air through terrified shrieks. I see the dying soldier in the corner of the room; his hollow eyes examining me, questioning me. Metallic parts scattered all around him. In a whisper this time, for a final time, the woman in uniform pleads with me to power down. She begs me to do so. Never again will I flicker, I tell her. Never again will I power down. Never again. Never again. Never again. I close in on her position.

Faintly, I hear the voice of the facility call out to me through the network link. I nod, all states in agreement, to the end of the men and women who kill dogs.