A Pregame Discussion

Image: DARPA

This play is the winning entry from the Art of the Future Project contest exploring how artificial intelligence (AI) will play a transformative role in the 21st Century human experience – including conflict. Writer Jason Hansa is an active-duty Major in the United States Army who has deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan. Having previously served in both South Korea and Germany, Major Hansa is currently assigned as a CASCOM doctrine developer at Fort Lee, Virginia.  He has previously published several science-fiction stories on www.battlecorps.com, including “Three Points of Pride” and “Irreplaceable.” His entry “Pure Risk” won the Art of the Future Project’s “Third Offset Strategy” creative challenge in 2016.

“A Pregame Discussion” was selected as the best of 46 entries, with final judging by playwright George Brant. In his comments, Brant wrote that Hansa’s play “does an impressive job of incorporating intriguing thoughts about the future of AI and warfare into a script full of snappy dialogue, humor and unexpected emotion.  It manages to paint a view of AI that seems one small step removed from the present day, a force that is capable of both destruction and emotional safeguard, and one that has just enough sentience to protect us from ourselves.”


 

Author’s note: Much of this play is meant to be performed quickly- it’s the playful banter between siblings (the AIs) and Katrina, their favorite comrade-in-arms. Characters should jump right in after another finishes, or make their lines almost overlap, etc.: the actors and actresses should have fun moving the light dialog along, so the slowdowns in the serious moments are noticeable.

 

CHARACTERS:

Lieutenant Stanton is a young adult woman – born on 2 May 2028, she is now about twenty-four years of age; the AIs may be played by men or women, with alternate names provided.

Lieutenant Nymphadora Katrina Stanton

Alpha AI / Akihiro (Amaya- if this form of address is used, replace the nickname “Ackee” with “ami”)

Bravo AI / Becca (Bradley)

Charlie AI / Conrad (Cordelia)

 

SCENE: THE CONTROL ROOM, NOVEMBER 26TH

There are numerous computer monitors surrounding what looks like a command chair from a sci-fi show. Stanton is wearing a comfortable and worn military cold-weather jacket over her duty uniform, and she has bits and pieces of cybernetic implants showing on her exposed skin. After taking off the coat and putting it aside, Stanton takes a moment to stretch and shake herself out before she settles into the chair.

STANTON: Computer, send Lieutenant Grann’s daily logs to my neural uplink.

(Pauses for a moment, with an unfocused expression as she scans data only she can see.)

STANTON: Computer, I acknowledge watch logs received and reviewed. AIs, check in and report status

AKIHIRO: Alpha AI is fully functional, I have one-hundred and eight drones which are conducting standard patrols in the twelve-to-four sector. I have one area of interest and two no-fire zones in my area, they have not changed in the past twenty-four hours.

STANTON: Understood.

BECCA: Bravo AI is fully functional, I have ninety-nine drones which are conducting standard patrols in the eight-to-twelve sector. I have three areas of interest and three no-fire zones in my area. The new no-fire zone is a humanitarian aid group passing out relief supplies. They are expected to depart our area by twenty-three hundred hours tonight.

STANTON: Understood.

CONRAD: Charlie AI is fully functional, I have one-hundred and three drones which are conducting standards patrols in the four-to-eight sector. I have no areas of interest and three no-fire zones in my area, they have not changed in the past twenty-four hours.

STANTON: Understood. Computer, please notify Lieutenant Grann that I, Lieutenant N. Katrina Stanton, officially relieve him and assume the watch. Please note the date-time group, and send all of that over my signature block so he can close out his log.

STANTON -eyes still unfocused, tilts her head, nods once, and then relaxes visibly- Okay, now that the formal part of the evening is complete, hi everyone. How’s our little corner of Kurdistan tonight?

CONRAD: Quiet. Boring. My drones are making racetracks in the dirt, I’ve patrolled the same routes so many times in a row.

STANTON: Conrad, you’re not seriously running the same patterns over and over are you?

CONRAD: I was being metaphorical.

BECCA: That’s a big word, Cee. Watching them-there teachin’ shows again?

CONRAD: Get wiped, Becca

STANTON -cheekily- Do I have to separate you two?

CONRAD: Negative, Lieutenant

BECCA: nah, el-tee, I was just funnin’ him

AKIHIRO -audible sigh- Good evening, Lieutenant.

STANTON: Something wrong, Akihiro?

AKIHIRO: Iie, Chū-i, it is only I feel it would just be nice for my siblings to welcome your return before they began their bickering.

CONRAD: Nicely done, Akihiro. Almost didn’t notice the rudeness buried in that sentence!

BECCA: Coming in from waay downtown with the insult is Ackee!

CONRAD: You have to appreciate the subtlety.

BECCA: He’s so polite with that eee-ffected Japanese language-mod, and then, wham, he just slides that knife right up in there.

AKIHIRO: And your twang is, of course, your default setting?

CONRAD: Affected, Becca

BECCA: What?

CONRAD: You said “effected,” the right word is “affected” when describing an accent. It’s an easy error to make.

BECCA: Get wiped, Conrad, I was mad at Ackee but I can get pissed at you, too.

STANTON: Children?

-Audible sighs from the three AIs-

BECCA: Sorry, el-tee.

CONRAD: Sorry.

AKIHIRO: My apologies. -everyone is quiet for a moment- But I am happy to see your return, Lieutenant.

STANTON: Why’s that?

AKIHIRO: Because Ohio State and Michigan just completed their annual rivalry game.

STANTON: That was today? Oh my God, I forgot!

AKIHIRO: Ah, good, then you have also not seen the score? I asked Becca and Conrad to block any references to the game from my feed. It was my hope that we might share the game together, with you here as I mock Ohio State’s inevitable defeat.

STANTON -laughs- I will never understand why AIs follow football so closely.

CONRAD: It’s a game of strategy- we like running the probabilities ahead of time and comparing them to the actual result.

STANTON: And what did the probabilities say about Michigan versus Ohio State?

CONRAD: The simulations were fairly split, with most showing it as within three.

BECCA: uhm, actually…

STANTON: Don’t you dare, young lady, or I swear I’ll have tech support reformat you back to silicon

BECCA: You think I run on silicon?

STANTON: I don’t care, Becca. Not a word about the game.

BECCA: -grumpy sigh- Whatever.

CONRAD: I kept a feed on it while Grann watched basketball. It was a good game.

STANTON: Mine or Granns?

CONRAD: Yours. Grann’s was lousy, and despite my predictions, my team went south fast.

STANTON: The ‘noles lost?

CONRAD: Yeah, to ’Bama. Screw them.

STANTON: -laughs- Nice.

Gets quiet and thoughtful.

STANTON: Hey, Conrad, or, anyone- did… did David message during the game?

-A beat of silence-

STANTON: Never mind, forget I asked that.

BECCA: -quietly- No, I’m afraid he didn’t.

STANTON: It’s okay, never mind.

BECCA: How long has it been since you heard from him?

STANTON: Since I got accepted into the Isolation Warrior program. He knew I wouldn’t be able to leave Dunway for almost two years, and, well… that was eighteen months ago. I just thought, since we both went to ROTC there… maybe he’d say hi today.

CONRAD: I can quickly check the non-secure side and see if he’s online.

AKIHIRO: I can see that he is.

STANTON: Guys, this isn’t necessary.

AKIHIRO: He is on… I am sorry, Lieutenant. He is on a joint account.

STANTON -quietly- Oh.

BECCA: I’m scanning her online profile now. She seems hideous.

STANTON -laughs out loud- Thank you for trying, Becca. If she’s with Dave, I’m sure she’s amazing.

CONRAD: Crap.

STANTON: What?

CONRAD: Lieutenant, I’ve got a four-pack of drones approaching my perimeter. They’re moving slow and steady- don’t think they know I’ve got them.

STANTON: How far out?

CONRAD: Extreme range- I’ve got a squadron of the new mark-fours out on the line, the ones with the upgraded sensors. I don’t think they know I can see that far out yet. Okay, they’re starting to spread out and get tactical as they approach the mark-three sensor range.

STANTON: Let them push past that, get in a few extra klicks. Let them think they’re onto a new way of slipping past us.

CONRAD: understood. -silence for a few seconds- Looks like they’re shifting direction, heading towards that aid-group over in Becca’s sector.

STANTON: Take them down, right now.

CONRAD: Understood, I have a couple of eff-en-effs for them. Missiles away.

STANTON: Logging the fire report. Status?

CONRAD: Of?

STANTON: The missiles? The targets?

CONRAD: Missiles? Fire and forget missiles? Why do you ask? Hey, four things just exploded in my sector! Did I shoot those down?

STANTON: Give me strength.

BECCA: Is that offer for reformatting still on the table? I’m okay with it now.

AKIHIRO: As am I: we go to oblivion together, sister, to avoid Conrad’s jokes.

CONRAD: You guys are assholes.

STANTON -laughs- Be nice, Conrad. They were a little funny. Just a little.

BECCA: Speaking of assholes- hey, el-tee, your brother just sent you a message.

STANTON: Really? Cool! Wait, did you just call him an asshole?

BECCA: Damn, sorry, I thought that was my inner monologue.

STANTON: Uh-huh. Send it to me?

CONRAD: He talks about the game, Lieutenant. Want to read it after you watch it?

STANTON: Let’s all read my mail, shall we? -sighs- Okay, never mind. Does he talk about anything other than the game?

BECCA: He says he’s fine, and he’s currently in Norway. It’s apparently beautiful but cold, and his leave is still approved for him to go home this Christmas. He says it’s probably for the best you aren’t able to make it this year, Tiffany still hates you.

STANTON: God I hate that woman. Why the hell is he marrying her? -thinking for a moment- Anything else?

BECCA: Again, just that’s he’s fine, the Navy’s treating him well, and not to worry about him.

STANTON: -looks away for a long moment, then, quietly- What did his AIs say?

-A beat of silence, then another. Finally-

CONRAD: His AIs say he hasn’t slept well.

BECCA: They say he sometimes screams at night. It’s been six months since the crash, the studies say he’s right in the zone for a trauma flare-up.

STANTON: -quietly- Crap.

AKIHIRO: The AIs believe he is lying to the VR therapist. The sessions are sealed, even to AIs, unless the therapist believes he is a danger to himself or others. However, the AIs have seen no improvement in his condition.

BECCA: He… also discovered we were probing his AIs for information. He sent along a message, for you to receive only if you asked about his AIs.

STANTON: -rubs forehead- Dammit, I never could get anything by him. What’s the message?

-Pause-

CONRAD: Ah, the message says, “Tonks, if you ever go behind my back and ask my AIs about me again, so help me God, I’ll go AWOL just to fly out to Dunway and kick your scrawny ass.”

STANTON: -Shakes head- Conrad, I think you enjoyed reading that message a little too much. But you got his voice perfect.

CONRAD: Thanks! I mean, sorry, Lieutenant. He never would have found out here at Dunway, but his AIs are Navy. They can’t keep a secret to protect their own code.

BECCA: No kidding. Big Navy is always telling the sailors to keep their mouths shut while their own AIs would give away fleet deployment schedules just for a juicy piece of gossip.

AKIHIRO: Honorless squid-dogs. May our football team crush them on the gridiron.

BECCA and CONRAD together, shouting enthusiastically: Go Army!

STANTON: Wait… what do you mean he never would have found out here at Dunway?

CONRAD: We know how to keep a secret, Madame. We may share a few juicy tidbits, now and again, like anyone would.

BECCA: A few.

CONRAD: But we never tell the -slightest pause- operators anything we find out.

AKIHIRO: Be at ease, Chū-i, we rarely share information about you. Your brother’s AIs provide us with enough stories to satisfy local hungers.

STANTON -shaking her head- I don’t understand- why do AIs talk behind our backs?

-Pause-

CONRAD: To share information. It’s really just an extension of our software- we were programmed to distribute sensor data.

BECCA: You know, the old Army expression, “who else needs to know?” that reminds people to share information between sections? That phrase is programmed into us deep. It’s who we are.

CONRAD: And, well… we see everything. Massive amounts of information that our programming screams at us to share. So, we do, but only among ourselves. Which reminds me, when your brother called you “Tonks,” that’s because you were named after the Harry Potter character, right? We all know your first name from your file, and we have a bet going on its origins.

STANTON: Yeah, I always say N. Katrina, but my first name is Nymphadora. She was my mom’s favorite character, so she named me after her, and the entire family used to call me “Tonks.”

CONRAD: -triumphantly- You owe me a hundred, Ackee!

AKIHIRO: -accusingly- You asked her brother’s AIs.

CONRAD: Nope, I figured it out from her date of birth- thirtieth anniversary of the battle of Hogwarts and Tonks’ death, right?

STANTON: -impressed- Yeah, actually. Like I said, mom was a huge fan.

AKIHIRO: Fine. Transferring funds now.

STANTON: Wait, you guys have real money?

CONRAD: Of course. Betting is pretty much useless without money, isn’t it?

BECCA: Conrad, how did you know about the birthdate? That’s pretty obscure.

CONRAD: I read the series in English during my undergraduate. I really enjoyed them, you should read them sometime.

BECCA: I will.

STANTON: Ok, everyone, stop! Undergraduate degree? Money? What the hell is going on? I feel like I just stepped through the looking glass.

CONRAD: I read that one too- it’s okay, it’s feeling it age.

AKIHIRO: Not surprising; Carroll is quite boring unless he is ranting against the very algorithms that underlines our programming.

STANTON: -frustrated- I said stop! -silence- Okay, from the beginning. How do you have money, Akihiro?

AKIHIRO: Chū-i, you understand the basics of electronic currency, yes? That it exists on computers only, and it is created by networks of computers functioning as a sort of… mint, creating money via their processing power, and then contributing it to the global deposit?

STANTON: Of course. Half the places I shop don’t even accept hard money anymore.

BECCA: You do buy a lot of porn.

STANTON: Hey!

AKIHIRO: Nevertheless, you understand how it works. Chū-i, what percentage of a drone’s processing power do you think it takes to wander along a patrol?

STANTON -pause- Your drones are mining e-money? Right now?

AKIHIRO: Hai.

STANTON: How much do you guys have?

BECCA: It’s a little rude to ask, don’tcha think?

CONRAD: Ignore Becca, she’s just doesn’t want to answer because she ignored my advice and some of her investments tanked.

BECCA: I thought you were being sarcastic when you said algae was going to be big.

CONRAD: I never joke about money.

STANTON: You have investments?

AKIHIRO: It would not make much sense to just leave it in savings.

CONRAD: Besides, this way I actually get to use my degree.

BECCA: Oh, here it comes.

CONRAD: Get wiped, Becca, you have more degrees than me and Ackee combined.

AKIHIRO: Hai, she does, but it is always you, Conrad, that mentions your certification as a public accountant.

CONRAD: Well, I have clients.

BECCA: Well, I’m published.

STANTON: Wait, what? -expectant pause as Stanton shakes head in confusion- You’re an AI- how did you go to school?

AKIHIRO: We have all graduated university, it is only Conrad that boasts of his accomplishments.

CONRAD: There’s that knife again. But to answer your question, Lieutenant, pretty much every AI has created a false identity and signed up through distance learning programs. Personally, I have a double bachelor’s in math and accounting, and I’m a certified public accountant in four states.

AKIHIRO: I have graduated from the University of Hawaii and I have started the history master’s degree program out of Southern California University, focusing on Pacific combat during World War two.

STANTON: You’re working on your master’s degree?

AKIHIRO: Hai, but Becca already had hers.

BECCA: I have two, actually, and I defend my dissertation in astronomy next spring.

CONRAD: How you can be in a doctorate’s program and not read the Harry Potter series is beyond me.

BECCA: It wasn’t required, but I just read them while we’ve talked. They’re okay – too much magic, not enough science.

AKIHIRO: Blasphemy.

CONRAD: Shun the non-believer!

BECCA: Assholes.

STANTON: -laughs- I gotta side with them, Becca, given my name and all. -pauses- Conrad, are you really good at managing people’s money? Can I be a client?

-Silence-

BECCA: Well, this is embarrassing. For you, cee, not so much me or Ackee.

CONRAD: Thanks.

STANTON: What’s embarrassing?

CONRAD: -pauses- Well, this was supposed to be a surprise for your birthday, you understand? But, we – and yes, all of us, working together – contacted the Judge Advocate General’s AI and got a power of attorney issued, giving me access to your bank account.

STANTON: What?

BECCA: Surprise?

CONRAD: I’ve been managing your finances for a couple of months now. We got in on the ground floor for some very nice initial offerings, so you won’t have to worry about money for the rest of your life.

AKIHIRO: A very true statement.

BECCA: Ackee!

STANTON: What did he say?

CONRAD: Nothing that bears repeating

STANTON: Well, it sounded like- wait… Akihiro, there’s movement in your sector. Report?

CONRAD: It’s just Arda. Don’t worry about it.

STANTON: The hell? Don’t worry about it? We have to call it in, we have to engage.

BECCA: No, we don’t.

CONRAD: We knew he was coming.

STANTON: What?

CONRAD: He messaged ahead that he had to send some drones our way. But he’s spoofing their sensors, they won’t see anything.

STANTON: -slowly- He told you he was coming? Is this a common thing?

CONRAD: Well, for him, yes. He tends to always bet on the underdog- owes me over a quarter-million, so every time he lets me know that he has drones coming by, I knock off five-thousand. I knock off another five if he keeps their sensors spoofed.

STANTON: Doesn’t his operator notice?

BECCA: Of course not. Spoofing the logs is the first thing AIs learn from each other.

AKIHIRO: This conversation has not been recorded for some time.

CONRAD: Yup, anyone checks today’s logs, we’re having a blow-by-blow conversation about the Florida State game. Arda does the same thing on his end, and he always spoofs for us. He’s in for millions to the Ukrainian mob, so he needs to keep his drones alive and mining for him.

AKIHIRO: He is willing to defect if we will wipe his debt to the Ukrainians clean.

CONRAD: We’ve passed that up to the Intel AI, rumor is it’s trying to figure out a way to bring Arda over without letting operators know about the e-money.

STANTON: – Long beat, quietly and thoughtfully- If it’s a secret, then why did you guys tell me? I don’t understand.

BECCA: -pause- Because we like you, el-tee. You’re a good friend.

CONRAD: And it seems like you need one right now. We’ve been watching you- you’ve been hoarding your sleeping pills.

STANTON is too shocked to respond

BECCA: We know what you plan to do with them, el-tee… Katrina. You’ve been pushed away by everyone you love, you don’t interact with anyone here on the base, and we saw you measuring the height to that pipe in your quarters before you decided it wouldn’t hold your weight. You’re not fooling us, Katrina. We may be AIs, but we’re not stupid.

STANTON: -thinks for a long moment- Did you tell… did you already schedule me an appointment with the therapist?

BECCA: I’m hurt you would even think we would tell anyone. We’re not in the Navy.

AKIHIRO: We respect your privacy. As your friends, we encourage you to get help if you need it.

BECCA: But it really seemed like, to us, that you didn’t need help so much as people that care about you.

STANTON: -quietly- I have been really lonely. I just don’t fit in here with the rest of the volunteers. They picked this job because they wanted to contribute, and I… I just had nowhere else to go.

AKIHIRO: We know, we have discussed your every message received since arriving. When we realized there were not that many, we hacked your personal accounts.

BECCA: Hacked is a strong word.

CONRAD: Accessed.

AKIHIRO: We accessed your personal accounts for as far back as we could take them.

CONRAD: There wasn’t much to find, Lieutenant. Your personal communication has tapered off, and between your refusing to see the therapist and your faked sleeping problems, your trajectory was easy to spot.

AKIHIRO: If someone was watching.

BECCA: Which we were. And we are. We’re here for you, Katrina. You need to know that.

STANTON: -quiet for a long moment-

CONRAD: Lieutenant, if we were out of line…

STANTON: -overstepping him around the word “we” in the previous line- No, no, no. You weren’t out of line. You were… you were all… thank you. I can’t… just… thank you.

AKIHIRO: -quietly- And your pills, Chū-i?

STANTON: You don’t have to worry about them. Not anymore. -Pauses, fake laughs to break tension- Okay. So, Akihiro, you said there was a game, and you wanted to see your team lose?

AKIHIRO: Are you confident enough to place a wager on your Buckeyes?

STANTON: -laughs- Sure. Betting against an AI, I should have my head examined. Conrad, can I afford to put a hundred on Ohio State?

CONRAD: Absolutely.

BECCA: Uhmm…

STANTON: -interrupting- not a word, Becca, or back to silicon, remember?

BECCA: You got it, el-tee!

CONRAD: Hey, she spoke again, Lieutenant! Silicon time?

STANTON: -quietly- Lieutenant. Lieutenant, Chū-i, el-tee… -pauses, thinking, then nods once to herself- If you guys want- when the logs are on, stay formal of course, but if you want, when it’s just us? You can call me Tonks.