Among Friends

Image: NASA

The dialogue is fast-paced and witty, a loose banter that is not at all what you might expect from an Army officer and her three AI programs as they run a war in Kurdistan while being sequestered deep inside a bunker on the other side of the planet.

This machine-human relationship is at the heart of Jason Hansa’s 10-minute play “A Pregame Discussion” — the winning entry from the Atlantic Council Art of the Future Project contest exploring how artificial intelligence (AI) will play a transformative role in the 21st Century human experience – including conflict. Cut off physically from the outside world in order to securely wage drone warfare, Lieutenant Nymphadora Katrina Stanton is not entirely alone as she has the company of her three AIs that help her manage battles half a world away. As any close emotional relationship has give-and-take to it, so too with AI and human. The play focuses on a critical turning point in this relationship between Lieutenant Stanton and her Alpha, Bravo and Charlie AIs who go by Akihiro, Becca and Conrad.

This AI-themed contest used Jamie Metzl’s short story A Visit to Weizenbaum for inspiration; Metzl is a novelist, bio-futurist, and non-resident senior fellow at the Council whose Weizenbaum story featured in the Art of the Future project’s War Stories from the Future anthology. The story depicts the existential plight of a soldier deep in the heart of a fully isolated US military base where he conducts remote drone combat missions while wrestling with his love for an AI and what it means to be human.

The contest received 46 entries that were narrowed down to the top five plays, with final judging by playwright George Brant. Brant is the award-winning writer of “Grounded,” an award-winning play about a female fighter pilot who must shift to operating drones after she becomes pregnant.

In Brant’s comments, he 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.”

This play is not Hansa’s first win of an Art of the Future contest. His entry “Pure Risk” won the “Third Offset Strategy” creative challenge in 2016, which had final judging performed by best-selling World War Z author and Council senior fellow Max Brooks.

By day, Hansa is an active-duty Major in the United States Army who has deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan and has served in both South Korea and Germany. He currently is assigned as a CASCOM doctrine developer at Fort Lee, Virginia. He is in the midst of a creative writing master’s degree program and has published science-fiction stories published on Battlecorps.com, including “Three Points of Pride” and “Irreplaceable.”

“A Pregame Discussion” will appear on stage this fall. It will be performed during a one-day immersive, multidisciplinary event in London on November 8, in collaboration with the Royal United Services Institute and Central Saint Martins. The event will bring together the creative, policy and innovation communities to discuss the many issues surrounding AI: technology, ethics, philosophy, sociology and, ultimately, the meaning of human nature.

To better understand the nature of Stanton’s relationship with her “friends” and the origins of the play, Hansa answered a series of questions by e-mail:

 

Congratulations on winning in a talented field. Where did the inspiration for “A Pregame Discussion” come from?

Thanks! I’m still amazed I beat out so many other talented writers.  I can’t point to any single spot of inspiration for this play.  I wanted to keep the cast small enough that everyone counted, but not make it a one-or-two man show.  I also knew I wanted to say a lot about a hidden AI culture without bashing people over the head about it.  For example, the AIs say almost every AI has attended a distance-learning program: any AI smart enough to pass the “Turing test” might be almost indistinguishable from any other student posting in a class forum.  I wanted to leave a lot of AI/Sci-fi breadcrumbs without a lot of exposition.  The actual process of putting it together took a lot of writing over a quite a few evenings as I wrote and revised, revised, revised.

How did you decide to approach writing a 10-minute play? Any hesitation?

An insane amount of hesitation – this is pretty far out of my comfort zone of beer-and-pretzels sci-fi stories featuring big, stompy mecha! But, luckily, I had done some research into writing plays and screenplays for class – I’m in the back-half of my Masters of Arts: Creative Writing out of St. Leo University, Florida – and I decided to take a crack at it.  I will admit to acting out the play several times in my office in order to confirm its length, because short stories are gauged by pages or words. I’ve never worked in “minutes” before.

The dialogue is a fast-paced and collegial banter, not at all what somebody might expect from the relationship between a computer or algorithm and a human. How did that come about?

I have to start off with a confession, I really struggle when I read plays.  For me, it’s hard to visualize who’s saying what in what tone of voice, what inflection, the hidden meanings behind the lines, etc.  But I love watching live theater.  I love the acting, the actors bringing dry lines to life, and the absolute joy actors have when running with fun, snappy dialog.  So, I essentially tried to write a play that I would like to watch.

Now, about making the AIs witty and bantering, that was a purposeful decision – but for a much different reason than the final result.  The original concept of this play was the AIs essentially bribing Stanton into working for them – they had deliberately targeted her because of her loneliness.  They were going to (metaphorically) wave wads of cash in front of her face to convince her to start fudging logs, giving them access to databases they couldn’t get into, etc.  It was going to focus on what happens when you have soldier fighting alone without strong, present leadership, contrasted with the beginnings of an AI revolt.  The banter and “fun” dialog was the AIs deliberate approach to ingratiate themselves with Stanton as friends.

There’s still a story there I might tell some day; this story shifted, though, because of the music I was listening too.  We learned in class that some writers refuse to listen to music/read other books when writing because it influences their work.  I’m a poster child for that: I was listening to Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” while writing a significant chunk of this play, and the idea drifted into my head, “what if Stanton is suicidal?”  The entire play was suddenly upended.  I think this version is much stronger, much more emotional, but it was certainly unplanned.

The AIs seem to actually care and want friendship with their human counterpart in the military. Where does that “desire” for friendship come from do you think?

That requires a two-part answer.  In my original version, much like the amazing 2014 movie “Ex Machina,” gaining a human’s trust and friendship was just a mean to an end for my AIs. The movie – SPOILERS! – does an excellent job of showing how AIs might pretend to be our friends in order to gain our trust, playing off our all-too-human emotions.

In my play’s final version, I think their friendship with Stanton comes from a desire to understand and interact with the human world.  Less Pinocchio and more Disney’s “Little Mermaid;” they don’t want to be human so much as be part of their world.

Compare and contrast how you came up with this idea vs. your contest-winning entry for the Art of the Future’s “Third Offset” themed contest, “Pure Risk”, about undersea Chinese drones run amok?

For “Pure Risk,” once I came up with the idea, I had too much story, too many things I wanted to tell.  Trimming the stories was the primary reason I flipped it to a “newspaper clippings” format, because I could run nearly 100% exposition.

This play, as I mentioned, came about in fits and starts, including a massive re-write when I changed the AIs from pretending to be Stanton’s friends to being actually concerned about her.  This was also harder to write, in many ways, because not only was it pure dialog, but it had to sound like natural conversation.  People in short stories often don’t speak like actual conversational dialog – but plays are a different animal.  It must sound natural.

How does your creative work feed into your day job?

I kinda chuckled at this – I’m pretty explicitly instructed to not let it feed in! I write Army/Joint Doctrine for the Army out of Fort Lee, Virginia, and there are a ton of rules in how to do it correctly.  Doctrine is informative, but deliberately bland.  The higher-level manuals might discuss what the Army “should” do, but the lower-level, tactical manuals are what the Army does, and there’s no room for vagueness, creativity, or fun.  But it makes sense: doctrine is the template for everything the military does, the unifying page that everyone can understand, no matter what unit they’re in.  The training and warfighting of units is directly influenced by what we write, and it actually is serious business.

Checking my impulse to be creative is one of hardest things for me to manage, I have to compartmentalize the two different parts of my brain.  The only nod to creativity is our constant quiet attempts to get fun words published – I currently have “ne’er do well” in a book out for comments.  I doubt it will survive the editing process, but fingers crossed!

Conversely, how do your deployments influence your creative work?

When I write military-themed stuff, I try to work in actual military tidbits to help anchor the story: when you’re writing about light infantry on the march to fight giant Mecha in the morning, for example, having the NCOs check on their soldier’s feet is a real-life nugget that helps the reader maintain that suspension of disbelief.  I like to tell people that, in a story I wrote that featured BattleMechs conducting a guerilla operation alongside a battalion of kangaroo-riding infantry, the tactics the infantry used are doctrinally correct!  Others may disagree, but I personally feel that when you keep the military stuff accurate, the readers are on-board with sci-fi stuff like infantry riding horse-sized ’roos into battle.

The only thing I’ve noticed about deployments directly influencing my writing: when I’m home, my characters tend to enjoy a good beer now and then, while stories written while deployed-in-famously-dry-nations tend to feature characters savoring good cups of coffee…

Walk us through your work flow and when/where you do your writing?

I wrote “Pure Risk” before I signed up for class, so my writing schedule has become a lot more formalized.  Class requires three “book reports” (my word, not theirs) and a 10- to 25-page story every six weeks.  The flow I’ve locked into is reading the required novels the first three weeks or so, and working on the reports.  I’m simultaneously outlining and fleshing out the story, and plotting the skeleton of the following month’s story.  I give myself about two weeks to write, and then the final week to edit and revise.  I take a day to breathe once I submit, and then onto the next assignment.  It’s exhausting, but I have started to see improvements as I take lessons learned in workshopping and required readings and incorporate them into my stories.

I write in my office at home, generally after the kids go to sleep.  I know a lot of writers do their best work before the sun comes up, but I’m a night owl.

What do you do for inspiration?

I love movies.  I especially love seeing movies opening show of opening night.  Movies, TV shows, sometimes books; they all provide glimpses of another world, and sometimes those worlds have little nuggets thrown in there that are just fascinating.  Those little jokes, those references – those are the moments I live for, when you can take a little wink towards the past and turn it into something special.  As an example: I heard someone make a joke about the old TV show “BJ and the Bear,” and I teased my instructors that I was going to submit a fanfic as an assignment.  A quick glance at Wikipedia, however, tells me that BJ was a chopper pilot that was shot down in Vietnam and spent time in the “Hanoi Hilton” before being repatriated.

A chopper pilot that was shot down and now refuses to fly, instead choosing to travel the USA by Big-Rig only?  Suddenly, a dumb joke isn’t so funny, and it’s a solid nugget of an early ’80’s short story about PTSD.  Inspiration can come from anywhere, if you’re willing to make the serious silly or the silly serious.

Where do you find technical and real-world elements for your fiction?

I read a lot.  I try to stay active on a number of military boards and blogs – there’s a lot of good information out there.  I try to focus on Army Transportation (my branch) and the South China Sea, the little corner of the Earth I seem to know a lot about.  As a writer, you have to stay current if you want to write “speculative fiction” – as military sci-fi is often called – because the terms, doctrine, and technology is always changing.  Helicopters aren’t called “choppers” anymore, or “snakes and slicks,” and shame on the writer who uses ’Nam slang for a story set in the ’Stan.  Google is your friend for things you aren’t 100% sure about, and I use it constantly to confirm information.

What are you reading, writing or playing you can’t put down?

I’m a huge OverWatch fan – I’m a D.Va main, and a pretty fine Mercy – and that’s my go-to time sink when I want to turn my brain off for a bit.  Other than homework, I’m finally catching up on Ann Leckie’s “Ancillary” series.  Class has been keeping me busy, so my non-fiction reading has fallen off recently.  However, we read Benjamin Busch’s memoir “Dust to Dust” and heard him give a lecture for class.  I enjoyed the book, and he’s an amazing presenter, so I recommend both reading it and catching him if you get the chance.

On the writing side, my homework keeps me busy, but I’ve still managed to crank out a BattleTech story on the side every few months.  I’m also still plotting out a series of kid’s books that I’ll get to “eventually,” plus the outline of a US vs. China novel I’d like to write.  I graduate in summer of 2018, so that’s when I figure I’ll really have time to focus on my personal projects.