L’Etat, C’est Moi

Image: NASA

“L’Etat, C’est Moi” by Dr. Jacob Parakilas is a finalist entry in the Atlantic Council Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security Global Trends 2035 creative contest that called for writers to explore the technologies, trends and themes that will shape the world two decades from now. He is Assistant Head of the US and the Americas Program at Chatham House, the Royal Institute for International Affairs, in London. His research has largely focused on American foreign policy and international security issues. He has worked at Action on Armed Violence, the World Security Institute, the Arms Control Association and the US Department of Homeland Security. His fiction has previously explored robotics and swarming technology in “Every Reasonable Possibility.” He can be found on Twitter at @JParakilas.

In the predawn darkness outside 3381 Riverside Avenue, Carmen Rivera was climbing a telephone pole. She climbed impossibly fast, disregarding the rusting handholds sunk into it. At the top, she startled a pigeon, which squawked, flapped over a couple of feet, and glared at her. She glared back, unblinking, and the pigeon decided to find somewhere else to sit.

At the same time that Carmen Rivera was winning her staring contest with the bird, she was also burrowing through the sewer line outside 3381 Riverside Avenue. And she was winging silently above, watching an irregular galaxy of differentiated icons tighten a 3-dimensional net around the same address. That address, which to human eyes looked like a decades old, sagging duplex on the outskirts of Biddeford, Maine, looked somewhat different to her. She could see the physical building, but superimposed over it were brightly colored lines and patterns representing its most mundane secrets – its dimensions, its electromagnetic signatures and so on.

Carmen, in the way that her slightly New-Age-y parents would have understood it, was not in any of these places. Physically, she was in what they would have identified as a sensory deprivation tank some 540 miles south, covered with extremely precise muscular sensors and being fed high-definition video via illuminated contact lenses and directional audio from a precisely positioned set of speakers.

“Net, we are in position.” The words, spoken aloud into a throat mike by a federal agent down the street, had been run through a sorting algorithm and deemed important enough to play through the speakers in her unit.

“Echo four nine, roger, stand by for threat assessment.” Her reply wasn’t spoken; it was sub-verbalized into a throat sensor and electronically translated into sound. Echo Four Nine had no idea who Carmen was; to him, she was a deliberately androgynous voice in his earpiece.

Carmen actually hated the thought of her voice being turned into something computerized and androgynous, like a glorified Siri. She actually had an extremely nice mezzo soprano singing voice; she’d gotten into Julliard on it. In a fit of anti-establishment pique, she hadn’t gone, but she still practiced periodically.

“Threat assessment – building appears empty. Negative for evident traps, weapons, hazards. Confidence is… 98%.”

“Roger. We’re a go.”

Technically, the federal agent had on-scene command. It was his neck, and those of his men, on the line. But if he had the authority, Carmen had the power. His understanding of the tactical situation was based almost entirely upon the data that Carmen’s swarm was feeding him. She could cut off his feed if she chose to, and render him blind.

Well, nearly blind. He’d still have his eyes. But what good were those anymore?

From a hundred angles, Carmen watched as the SWAT team stacked up outside the front door. The first four guys were wearing exoskeletons—big dark blue units layered with stacks of armor and tactical gear. The rest wore conventional armored uniforms, since Exos were expensive.

“Stand by. Breach in 3, 2, 1, now.” When Carmen thought ‘now,’ her bugbots, which had long since crawled into the space between the door and its frame and filled the space with highly reactive gel, transmitted a detonation code to the hundreds of tiny actuators speckled throughout it. In an instant, the gel fizzled and flashed, dissolving the hinges, the lock and a fair portion of the frame. The door simply fell into the house.

“GO GO GO!” she heard from her feeds.

You do you, she thought.

“FBI! Search warrant! Get down get down get down!” The Exo men went first, shielding those behind with their bulk and pointing automatic shotguns. The noise of their passage would have been unmistakable, if there had been anybody home.

There wasn’t.

It was all a bit silly. More than a bit silly. Ninety-eight percent was actually a very conservative guess; her actual certainty was a few tenths of a percent shy of total. But she’d figured out that near-perfect certainty was off-putting. Regular old near-certainty was fine.

Twenty or 30 years before the FBI guys would have gone crashing into a building blind, on the basis of some CI’s say-so, counting on their skill at directed violence to carry them through. Carmen often wondered how many of them were agnostics, given that their sense of purpose in life was hugely driven by uncertainty. Probably not many, she thought. Old habits die hard, and so do old ways of thinking.

Four minutes later, the team had cleared the building from top to bottom. “All clear,” the leading agent announced, with what Carmen decided was a distinct tinge of disappointment in his voice.

She thought, I could have told you that, but not in a way that transmitted. What transmitted was, “Roger, begin evidence processing.”

This was the interesting part. She already knew what was in the basement of the house—a rack of high-powered servers and a surprisingly well-camouflaged cooling system. She had some idea, thanks to an open-ended TRAK warrant, of what was on the servers based on the data they sent outside. But what was on their data banks was unknown to her.

There was no technical reason why Carmen needed an entire FBI tactical team in the building, nor the cordon of Biddeford cops, York County sheriffs, and Maine State Police outside. She could have very easily accessed the building, hacked into the server nest, downloaded its entire contents, and then done whatever she wanted to cover her tracks with a few bugbots and rattlers. But thanks to the Supreme Court’s recent 5-4 decision in Bergman v. Cleaver, such an intrusion onto private property in the absence of a sworn officer of the law was unconstitutional under the 4th Amendment. 3381 Riverside was private property, hence the heavily armed show-and-tell— the FBI’s version of an ironic display of deference to that decision.

Downstairs, an agent in an Exo ripped the plastic covering off a server rack. As he stepped back, one of Carmen’s rattlers glided up its front towards a docking port. It was hard to tell through the armor, but he seemed to recoil from the machine.

Deal with it, she thought. The rattler found the docking port and lined up its plug. As it connected, the thought this seems obvious drifted in from some unoccupied part of the back of her mind.

-—

There was no officially recognized list of the best swarm drivers. The government’s position was that its drivers should focus on being great, and not distract themselves by trying to become the greatest. And their identities were a closely guarded secret—three people knew Carmen’s occupation, and disclosing it was punishable by a mandatory minimum 40-year prison term.

But there was little doubt she was one of the best in the world. The swarm she was controlling in Maine, consisting of some 317 discrete robots, was a small unit, fit for a specific task. It was busywork. She’d once, temporarily and basically because of a series of catastrophes, driven a swarm 17,000 strong—virtually the entire robotic portion of the whole US military presence in Venezuela. She’d been told it was a record, that no one else had ever come close. She was glad for the unofficial recognition. She’d had a headache for days afterwards, since while the displays and controls scaled automatically in response to the size of the swarm being driven, the algorithms that translated between her inputs and commands weren’t perfect, and demanded proportionately more attention and care as the size of the swarm grew.

Carmen drove her swarm by twitching. Most drivers did; though the precise movements were highly individual. A driver’s twitch pattern was the most unique thing about them—more than their fingerprint, more than their DNA. Some drivers had different approaches; rumors abounded about swarms controlled via interpretive dance, singing, poetry… It wasn’t all bullshit, but it was massively exaggerated. The point was that there was no single means by which a human being could be expected meaningfully to manage the actions of dozens, hundreds, or thousands of individual robotic agents. Typing or speaking were both laughably inadequate to the task. With useful direct brain interfaces still some distance off, only mapping the movements of individual muscle groups to specific commands was sufficient to blend human instinct and machine efficiency.

Being able to control those muscles precisely enough to develop a meaningful control language over multiple independent agents was a skill that very few people could master. As a result, drivers weren’t so much recruited as chosen. Legally speaking, they volunteered; realistically, it was made entirely clear to them that they wouldn’t have a future unless they volunteered. The rarity of the necessary skills also meant that where soldiers in a volunteer military might be expected to be amongst the most ideologically committed members of society, drivers ran the gamut; some were true believers, most were relatively normal and a few did the job despite, rather than because of, their ideologies. The flip side was that those who proved capable of ‘Muscular Exponential Multitasking’ were a prize commodity, shared under an unusual (and largely classified) inter-agency arrangement which gave them authority and leverage well beyond their formal seniority.

-—

The rattler connected with the docking port. Normally what would happen would be a trickle and then a rush of data as the universal connector on the rattler’s head negotiated entry with the hardware and software of the port. But she didn’t get any data.

What Carmen got instead was a single “click” sound. The FBI guy in the Exo had time to say, “What the fu…” as what should by all rights have been nondescript server racks dropped open, and a swarm boiled forth. One of the first out of the gate was a dragonfly—a winged drone whose body was a tiny battery and, as it turned out, about a gram of plastic explosive. In moments it covered the four feet between its launch point and the seam between where the agent’s neck plate stopped and his helmet began. The explosion was more of a pop, but its precision meant that the agent was dead before he hit the floor.

Behind it were hundreds of others—mostly flyers, though some crawlers as well. One of the latter grabbed Carmen’s rattler, wrenched it free of the trick docking port, and unceremoniously sawed it in half. She felt the cutoff of its feed acutely, and then realized she’d just witnessed a murder, followed by a surge of guilt.

And then she felt a much greater surge of adrenaline. Inside her shell, Carmen’s subtle twitches became thrashes and stabbing motions as she commanded her swarm to fight back by any means available. Her robots weren’t defenseless, but they were all over the house looking for clues. Even with her immediate switch to combat mode, they weren’t distributed in a way that allowed them to fight effectively.

The agents, by contrast, were both distributed and effectively defenseless. They all carried short-range jammers, but they were limited by needing to keep channels clear for Carmen’s swarm, and whatever was compelling their assailants clearly wasn’t affected by them. The agent in charge could have issued a “jam all” emergency command that would have shut down all transmissions of any kind throughout the house, but that would have certainly stopped Carmen from controlling her units and might or might not work against the others. In any case, his initial reaction was to shoulder his assault rifle and pour a long burst of fire into the line of crawlers that had emerged from the walls in front of him, which successfully shredded three of them and, equally successfully, distracted him from the dragonfly coming up behind his head.

In less than a minute, all 16 FBI agents in the house were dead. Two hundred of Carmen’s swarm, virtually all of the robots inside the house, had been destroyed. Adrenaline had distended time and narrowed her focus—she was vaguely aware that the agents were dead, and even more vaguely aware of the mountain of grief building up behind that. But as her swarm diminished she became more engaged with each survivor, her commands becoming more individualized and less strategic. Under other circumstances it might have made a difference, but the assault had been so quick and overwhelming that no amount of tactical or technical skill could save her swarm.

Outside, the Biddeford cops and York County sheriffs and Maine State Troopers watched in horror. An FBI backup team at the perimeter was unlimbering flamethrowers, powering up directed energy weapons, and starting to throw open crates containing a counter-swarm—a bunch of mean, dumb bots whose sole purpose was to find and dismember their counterparts. They’d be fed into Carmen’s loop if possible, but if necessary they were fully capable of operating autonomously.

It wasn’t necessary. The enemy swarm never left the house. Instead, with their work completed, they gathered on the floor of the kitchen, grouped tightly together, and the remaining explosive robots destroyed them all at once. And after that, it was quiet.

Carmen heard the thumps of the self-destruct charges from outside, and then she watched the indicators fade. “Shit! Fuck! Goddamn it!” she yelled, aloud, and then her words just became an unintelligible mixture of frustration and rage.

Everything was becoming blurrier and darker. She thought it was tears, but the icons projected onto her contact lenses were actually blinking out of existence faster and faster and then they were all replaced with a single message:

//STAND BY FOR DEBRIEFING//

-—

They let her sit in her unit for a while. She had an emergency release that she could trigger in case of fire or something, but she understood that claustrophobia wasn’t an acceptable justification.

So she sat, in silence, for an amount of time that started as interminable and was in danger of growing into truly unmanageable before they switched on a TV feed on her capsule’s internal displays. It was reruns of old HBO shows, and she was dropped in the middle of some complicated narrative involving murder and incest and dragons. Not, given her state of mind, the most considerate choice. But at least it was something.

Carmen hated to admit it, but it had probably been only a couple of minutes without stimulus. She couldn’t handle much longer than that.

After about an hour the debriefing started without ceremony. It was unpleasant, but as the questions wore on with numbing institutional predictability—what factors led you to assess such a low threat probability? What SOP were you following?—she let herself fall into a predictable, institutional rhythm of her own. The questions were accompanied by replays of what had just happened, projected straight onto her contact lenses. At least they stuck to the tactical displays and skipped the video replay of the violence that she’d just witnessed.

Eventually, they ran out of questions. The questioner simply said, OK, that’s all for now, meet your handler at 10 am tomorrow at the Starbucks on Rt. 50 in Chantilly, then all the data feeds stopped and her unit popped open. She gently peeled off the sensors that wrapped around her arms and legs, noticing that they were more sweat-soaked than usual, then removed her contacts, put them carefully into the provided holder, then sat on the edge of the clamshell for a while getting her bearings. In the background, the cooling systems for the networking systems spun down, leaving the gentle hum of the disinfectant system the only sound.

After a while, she stood up and walked out the door, down a totally antiseptic hallway and past the security guard whose name she couldn’t remember, who offered only a cursory glance as she went by. Outside, the sky was just beginning to glow in the east. Carmen let herself into her car, set the destination for home, and collapsed into a deep sleep as it pulled itself onto the highway.

—-

Carmen’s handler Beth looked like a beloved elementary school teacher on the cusp of retirement—slightly plump, grey hair, thick old-style glasses, and a ceaseless, kindly smile. It had taken a few meetings before Carmen had noticed the fact that the smile didn’t quite extend all the way to her eyes.

But she couldn’t help but like Beth. If her concern for Carmen’s well-being was insincere or put on, it was done with incredible care. Carmen wasn’t naive enough to think that Beth would for one second prioritize her over her work, but they had also been assigned to each other ever since Carmen ‘volunteered’ for the program just after college, and in that time she’d never known her to treat her unfairly. Plus, when Beth got angry, a rare but not unheard-of occurrence, she had an incredibly inventive and profane sense of humor, which Carmen couldn’t help but appreciate.

Beth was already waiting with coffee and pastries for both of them when Carmen arrived. The first thing she did upon seeing Carmen was to sweep her up in a massive hug. This came as a surprise to Carmen, who had tried to keep their relationship within what she imagined were professional norms, and as a result had only ever exchanged handshakes with her handler.

“I’m so sorry.” Beth released Carmen and they sat. “How are you holding up?”

“I haven’t processed it yet, to be honest. I guess I’m trying not to think about it.”

“Is that how you handled it when Alex died?” A drunk driver had hit Carmen’s second serious boyfriend when she was 22. Beth, of course, knew this well, though they had never really discussed it; her ‘application’ process had left virtually no stone in her biography unturned. Carmen thought about her reply for a second, but in this context there wasn’t much point in dissembling.

“I honestly don’t remember the first 24 hours after that happened. I remember the blackout drinking afterwards—I mean, as much as you could expect.”

“You’re not going to do that this time, right?”

“This is a different situation.” A long pause. “And, yeah, I’m a different person now. I don’t think I’m going to react the same way.”

“OK. Good. I’m not saying you can’t have a drink, you understand. Just keep it in check.” Beth took a long drink from her coffee. “So what happened?”

Carmen hesitated. “I feel like this was covered in pretty exhaustive detail yesterday.”

“I know. I’ve watched the readout. I don’t want you to walk me through the tactics. I want you to tell me why you think you were there.”

“Well, the briefing said that the property had been linked to an anarchist collective. Apparently the servers had been used in cyber-attacks, hosted pirated information—all sorts of bad stuff.”

Beth’s brow furrowed slightly. “Were you personally aware of the contents of these servers?”

“No, that would be irregular. I’m just a driver.”

“Uh huh.” Beth sounded unconvinced, which rattled Carmen. Her job driving the swarm was complicated enough by itself; she wasn’t supposed to understand context or question orders except insofar as it made driving easier. “But your central task was extracting the contents of those servers, right?”

“Yes, but I couldn’t get access remotely—that was the whole point of the operation, and why” (deep breath) “everybody ended up dead.”

“So let me see if I follow you here. The fact that there had to be physical access, with warrant-bearing human officers present, is why 16 FBI agents died, why the flags all around here are at half-staff and why every news organization in the country is currently re-litigating Bergman?”

Carmen breathed in, held it, and exhaled. “Like I said, I just drive the bots.”

Beth was fiddling with her pastry, tearing it into smaller and smaller strips very methodically. “That’s not you, Carmen. You don’t just ‘drive the bots.’ You’ve always been smarter and more inquisitive than that. That’s part of why you’re good at your job—even if it did lead you down some interesting ideological alleys.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Well, you were an anarchist, after all.”

“In college. Am I on trial for what I believed in college?”

“Of course not.” Beth put one of the disassembled strips of pastry in her mouth and chewed it loudly and deliberately. “That’s outside the scope, as they say. The point isn’t what you believed in college. It’s what you believe now. What do you believe now?”

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” Carmen could feel, not for the first time in recent memory, her anger rising.

“What I mean is, you assessed with extremely high confidence that the scene was safe, and 16 FBI agents died as a result. Your confidentiality is important to us, but we can’t protect it against the entire world. And the entire world is going to come looking for answers. So you need a better answer than anger when someone asks you what you believe.”

“I just… I don’t understand why what I believe has anything to do with what happened.”

“Let me put it to you like this, and bear with me. Bergman, as you know, put a lot of restrictions on how we gather intelligence and how we work. This incident looks as though it was custom-designed to justify legislation to overturn it—to allow us to go back to the old days of gathering information by any means necessary. And I’m sure you know there will be some in the government who will be agitating to do just that, or are already. And that, in turn, might create a backlash.”

Carmen said nothing.

“Here’s what I don’t understand, Rivera. If you wanted to discredit the government, why did you do it in a way that would lead to a greater crackdown on civil liberties?”

She couldn’t muster much of a response. “You think I did this.”

“Like you, Carmen, I don’t know what I think. I’m just trying to help you figure out what people are going to say. What they’re going to ask, once someone figures out who was running the show in Maine. They’re going to ask about why things went so wrong and they’re going to start to wonder whether someone whose job it is to be a thousand places at once might have been a few places she wasn’t supposed to.”

“And what—built a custom-designed swarm? Rented a house, hid it in servers? Built a false case, fed it to the FBI? All for what—to triple-backflip-discredit the government in service of an ideology I had in college? Does that even pass the smell test?”

Beth shrugged dismissively. “I’m not accusing you of anything. But you have enormous latitude in your position.”

“I also have an enormous lack of privacy. Is there anything I do that you don’t track?”

“You’d be surprised. Your actions create an enormous data trail—more than we can sort by hand. You know this.” Beth paused, and for the first time since they’d sat down looked slightly introspective. “Carmen, you probably don’t believe me, but I’m not accusing you of anything. I don’t think, as someone who knows you in some respects better than anyone else, that you’re capable of this intentionally. But what you do, by nature, requires a split personality. And we’ve had instances in the past where drivers took actions, significant actions, they had no memory of taking.” This time it was Beth who breathed in and out deliberately before continuing: “So let me ask you one more time, as a friend—what do you believe?”

Carmen pushed her chair back and stood up. “I believe I’m done.” And she walked out of the restaurant.