Primary Heroes

Image: 'Legend of Legends of Legend' by Kristin Wheeler

“Computers are useless. They can only give you answers.”

This quote is attributed to artist Pablo Picasso, but in the “Third Offset” contest-winning painting by US Navy Lieutenant Kristen Wheeler, “Legend of Legends of Legend,” computers are essential and give us anything but clear answers. The image she created by hand prompts us to explore how intertwining computers and humans on the battlefield will force us to revisit the foundational assumptions of modern warfare.

Wheeler began her Navy career in March 1998 at Naval Station Great Lakes. She has served aboard the USS COLE, USS NASSAU, and USS NASSAU, as well as serving as an information operations officer for a Provincial Reconstruction Team in Afghanistan. She is currently serving as a fellow on the Navy Innovation Advisory Council in Silicon Valley. Wheeler is also heavily involved with The Athena Project, a platform for sailors to pitch their innovative ideas to an audience, and she is a member of the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum.

The following are excerpts from an interview with Wheeler, in which she discusses her art with The Art of the Future Project:

What inspired your “Third Offset” themed art?

I am particularly interested in robots as warfighters. I feel an internal dilemma regarding the ethics. Will robots replace our warriors? Will robots be our new heroes? What is the relationship between human operators and robots?

How did you come up with the idea for this image, and what impact were you hoping to have?

I feel an ethical dilemma when it comes to the future of warfighting using robots. On one hand, we are reducing the bloodshed of our citizens. On the other, we could be entering warfare without human bloodshed … which changes the honor and sacrifice that grounds our entrance into a war. What will cause us to debate going to war, if our sons and daughters aren’t being put in harms way?

My attempt was to show robots as the new primary heroes. They are the ones who earn a spot in Arlington National Cemetery. I hoped to cause a question in the observer. Is this discomforting? If so, why?

Shed some light on the research or background that went into the piece.

I used an official map of Arlington from a governmental website. But updated it to reflect the year 2028. Space is limited there right now. So the space that remains is for future warfighters. I tied in three aspects: the big picture, Arlington (which includes the past and the future), then there are the tombstones for the robots, which reflect the information that would be relevant for the circumstances of their life and service. Instead of a religion, their corporate maker is designed as a symbol (most are real robotics companies). The types of conflicts they participated in are based on the types of future conflicts–water, famine, resources, disease. The robots’ operators are also inscribed as a mark of the robots dependency on humans. Instead of the robot supporting the operator, the operator is supporting the warfighting robot.

What is the importance of a map as a medium, particularly one that has a very paper-like look to it?  

As much as we like to think that we will completely revamp our world, paper will always be significant to traditional artists. There’s a connection to our past and a romanticism that can only be achieved through paper. With that, the Legend of Monuments is on a scroll. People would probably look it up on their electronic devices (like I did for research), but by making it a paper scroll that tells us where each monument is, I hope it feels more precious.

Give us the backstory behind the title.

Well, it was a last minute grab. Didn’t even think about it until I went to submit the entry. The scroll needed a title. It’s a legend (key) of monuments. It’s a legend of legends, essentially. The second legend being those individuals buried at Arlington that have epic stories, both known and unknown. So, then there’s the “Third Offset” theme. So I used the word legend three times, with each definition meaning something different. The last legend is not a person (that’s the second use), but rather an era. A moment in time.

There are familiar modern icons, such as the Epidemicbot tombstones, but there is also an historic feel to the image. Are these burial markers for humans or machines?

Machines. Those are our future heroes–the ones in the Battlespace.

You’re based in Silicon Valley for the Navy, how do you view the way disruptive or alternative approaches are viewed there versus how they are developed and received within the defense community?

Our acquisition system needs a reboot. Understanding we have laws to protect ethics and fairness and also quality assurance and safety. However, while we are trying to protect those aspects of acquisitions, we simply can’t keep up with the mind-blowing tech happening out here in Silicon Valley. Within the military, we have traditionalists and apathetic people who don’t understand that we are at “evolve or die” time right now. It’s discomforting to even begin to make actual moves beyond discussions. Thankfully, we have DIUx to try and break up some of the stagnancy that is infesting our bureaucracy.

In Silicon Valley, failure is not a bad word. It’s only money after all, and this place has plenty of it. In the military, failure is not an option. We need to learn how to accept failure, learn from it, try again, and prevail. As stewards of taxpayers’ money, we do have to justify our failures. But if there is one thing Silicon Valley has proven to the entire world, it is that failure is critical to superiority.

Describe your workflow and how writing and art fits into your daily life. 

I wish I had time to paint more. Every time I finally make time, I am reminded of how much it makes my soul shine. My brain relaxes and I think more critically and deeply about things like the Third Offset. I should make more time. Perhaps there is some part of me that still feels like painting is goofing off.

What are you reading, playing, watching, or writing right now that you can’t put down?

Team Genius: The Science of High-Performing Organization by Rich Karlgaard and Michael S. Malone. I constantly ask myself, “Why are we not considered the gold standard of teams here in Silicon Valley? Why is Google able to practice collaboration so much more effectively than us in the military? Can we ever get there?”

What are you working on next?

Just saw there is another Atlantic Council Art of the Future Project contest due this July. Been brainstorming. I’ve also started collaborating with a friend on a comic book, which came about from a conversation stemming from the “Third Offset” Art of the Future contest.