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Future of Learning A Sci-Fi Writing Competition

Honourable Mention | ADC Sci-Fi Writing Competition | International Category

Story by Ryan Pallas

The red glow of the clock and his internal voice repeated softly echoing inside his head, “03:45, 03:45, 03:45…” He hadn’t slept all night, Sidewinders didn’t have to.  Their official title was “Artificial Intelligent Implant Military Members” or “AIM” for short.  It didn’t help that they were on version 20 with a less than stellar history.  “Sidewinders” referenced the earlier variant of air-to-air missile but now reflected a slightly derogatory term for those who chose to be “enhanced”.   Sidewinder often meant their mental trajectory was unpredictable, and many veered off path.  On the flip-side, it sounded somewhat cool and everyone knew if you were a Sidewinder.  AIM had a lesser appeal when it came to recruitment.

There were rules to the game.  Greater than ten years of service with an understanding that you served indefinitely once enhanced.  The recent retiring class of sidewinders had an average age  of sixty-five before receiving presidential approval to be declassified and deactivated.  The initial procurement was much more difficult than retirement sending these men and women off to pasture.  The early history was ugly and the process itself had severe implications for the volunteer.

Volunteering meant you lost any family or friends you previously had—not that you would remember. The initial memory wipe also ensured all memories were deleted.  The early variants, AIM versions 1-8, kept their memories only to find out it inhibited decision-making.  Another side effect was through the rapid procurement of large amounts of data and processing, the identities of family and friends were compromised.  The way forward came from the Congressional AI Ethics Act of 2054 which required all Department of Defense Sidewinders to be wiped, classified, and declared government property.  The financial compensation to each family was substantial, but living without a family member for the remainder of your life did not always equate to a bank account that never seemed to empty.  Hard to raise your hand to answer the call when the call means forever.

His name was Scott, not the he remembers. His official title is now AIM 20.8.  He is a version 20 implant and number 8 out of that year’s cohort.  Cohorts ranged from single to triple digits, but after the disaster of 2052 where the Chinese hacked and decoded all transmissions from each Sidewinder resulting in the great revolt, it’s been an arduous process back to implementation.  Every combatant command was jeopardized and every operational plan broadcasted via YouTube after the website was subsequently hijacked revealing to the world plans the U.S. had kept previously kept in secret.  Each compromised AIM had to be permanently terminated.  In total, it required over one-hundred service members to be euthanized as the implant had been jeopardized. Once emplaced into the brain, the implant was impossible to remove. Since then, cohort sizes were kept small to limit possible future collateral damage.

AIM 20.8 rolled out of bed with a headache, nothing unusually the doctors assured him. The process of unplugging was challenging for many at first, the pain was so unbearable many AIM’s woke up on the floor semi-conscious after unplugging due to the overstimulation of the central nervous system the implant was embedded in.  The pain never subsided, pain thresholds just seem to increase over time. Not that he remembers, but AIM 20.8’s headache has persisted for years, since the day he received the implant. 

He slowly sipped his morning coffee, at least that’s what they told him it was.  It was really just a concoction of brain stimulants and vitamins in bone broth, but the taste exactly mimicked that of coffee.  He didn’t require sleep or caffeine, coffee drinking was mostly, if not all habitual for him now.  Even with a memory wipe old habits die hard.

His brain immediately synced with the cloud during the split second he was off-line during his unplug.  He had been downloading data even during his short periods of sleep-although last night he did not sleep at all.  He kept having a vision of a young woman and small girl running through a baseball field in Iowa.  He will never remember, but the vision was that of his late wife and daughter who died as a result of the great data breach of 2052 and the ensuing conflict.  The result wiped out one-quarter of the people in the United States due to an airborne pathogen similar to the great plague of London in the 1600’s.

The night which led to his decision to be enhanced, his engraved colt .45 lay on the end table from his second combat deployment to the Alaska while he continued to nurse the empty bottle of Jim Beam.  The last thing he would have remembered was the lights of the hospital hallway rushing over his gurney as he clutched the picture of his wife and daughter in his left hand.  He was being rushed into the emergency room from the wound due to a negligent discharge that luckily grazed his temple without inflicting any permanent damage. He was left with nothing, ultimately making his decision to enhance fairly simple—drink himself to death or be of some value.  The money was wired to his mother and father back in Iowa, but he doesn’t even remember them now.

The Sidewinders were responsible for a few things.  Number one was historical trend analysis and forecasting future conflicts.  The initial download took something to the order of three months under heavy anesthesia to upload, and the data didn’t always take the first time.  Multiple downloads meant re-imaging which meant long term problems.  If the download didn’t take by the third try, it was deactivation and decommission.  The problem, you were left without memories and provided a false identity.  Even if you wanted to go home you would never remember who or what you were previously.  Not to mention you wouldn’t remember anyone from your past.  So far, the government was great at taking away memories but hadn’t found the fix to restore them.

The stakes were high, but the results were phenomenal.  Each Combatant Commander had a single Sidewinder, and that’s all they needed.  Strategic singular assets compared to historically overgrown staffs who could only parcel together a third of the information Sidewinders could if they worked 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  Sidewinders didn’t require sleep and could process information at a rate comparable to an entire college campus every millisecond.  Histories of the world could be instantaneously compared, legislation reviewed, and war plans critiqued all in the time it takes to print a single piece of paper.  Daily updates meant no piece of information went without analysis and the Sidewinders were always at the top of their game.

The ethics requirements required any senior leader past the rank of Colonel to remain without enhancement.  The fear was that another great hack could jeopardize senior leaders within the Department of Defense.  Another reason was it kept someone at the helm who could strongly consider the human component of the decision-making process.  The Sidewinder nickname also inferred the mechanical process to which these individuals operated, usually without emotion.  A by-product of the initial memory wipe, but nonetheless making interactions with them problematic from time to time.

AIM 20.8 walked out of his single bedroom, nested within the secure confines of INDO-PACOM command where he was assigned, and headed to the operations center.  During his short walk he received and reviewed an email from another Combatant Commander requiring a combined war plan that would shortly be uploaded to the cloud.  As he walked into the operations center Admiral Nimitz, the descendant of Admiral Chester Nimitz from World War II, arrived asking for an update.  Looking around the operations center it was filled with five other individuals, mostly officers awaiting direction from AIM 20.8 as he verified all the monitors and data in the room.  Nothing out of the ordinary, all data registered and compared favorably. Admiral Nimitz told AIM to contact the aircrew for an immediate departure later that morning for Washington D.C. for an immediate war plan briefing to the Pentagon. 

AIM 20.8 walked out of the operations center having already filed the required paperwork and requests for a 0700 departure via the cloud simultaneously reaching out to the SECDEF’s AIM to coordinate all read-ahead materials and schedule deconfliction.  Having walked back into the operations center to inform Admiral Nimitz, he once again saw the image of a woman and young girl running through a baseball field.  He shook his head and the image quickly disappeared.  The incoming email server just updated explaining the meeting at the Pentagon would occur at 0800 the next morning. The plane was to leave within the hour.  He looked over at Admiral Nimitz “Sir, your bags are in the vehicle, we are wheels up in 60.”