Feeding An Appetite For Destruction

Image: Guerrilla Games

Humanity lives in scattered tribes across a verdant wilderness. They shun the ruined cities, littered with rusted tanks, remnants of a cursed civilization they call the Old Ones. But they don’t exist in this world alone. Instead, they share it with Machines, great mechanical beasts in the form of varied animals, from horses to dinosaurs, and ranging in hostility from relatively benign to vicious and massively destructive. This is the remarkable future depicted in Horizon: Zero Dawn.

In the Horizon, you play as Aloy, a tribal outcast gifted with a unique set of abilities and opportunities that allow her to investigate the ancient past, specifically to discover how the “old ones,” our civilization, fall apart. While this story very well told and fascinating in its own right, where the game really shines as useful science fiction is its depiction of robotics. In this future, the machines can replicate themselves by consuming biomass. Using rotor blades or shovel-like implements, these machines consume plant matter and transmute it into a volatile biofuel known as “blaze” which provides both a fuel source for continuous activity as well as the energy to create new robots.

This idea actually has a basis in reality. Robotic Technology Inc., funded by DARPA, has designed a robot known as the EATR, a concept for an autonomous robot that can seek out small plant items like wood chips, paper, grass clippings, or even more conventional fuels like ethanol. It can then burn these materials in an external combustion engine to provide energy for long periods of operation. RTI estimates that 50 pounds of wood burned could power a significantly powerful energy weapon, and a vehicle the size of a Humvee was estimated by RTI to be able to travel 100 miles using 150 pounds of dry vegetation as fuel (waste heat from the engine could possibly be used to dry freshly cut vegetation before it is consumed). While the EATR is only a concept, it shows promise. And despite many fears and alarmist articles, it is thankfully a complete vegetarian.

It is interesting to note that once a machine reacts dynamically to stimuli, reproduces, and essentially works its way into the food chain, there is little separating it in terms of functional definitions from an animal. This idea is reinforced by Horizon’s gameplay, where the machines coexist in a seemingly flawless fashion with pristine wilderness. The way that they behave normally and react in combat all contributes to the sense that they are essentially just as intelligent and aware as the animals that they are modeled after. This raises many questions. If we create autonomous machines designed to operate for long periods unsupervised, it may be possible that we could imbue them with a level of intelligence analogous to animals. Does this make them captive pets, raising additional questions of moral obligations to treat them humanely and prevent harm to them? Do these machines begin to have a right to digital life, and how does one quantify and compare the value of different machine intelligences, once we’ve ascertained that they are, at least in some sense, aware? Do you charge your iPhone or your iDog first? Such ethical questions are intriguing, especially since they often seem to be sidestepped by the far flashier questions surrounding human level artificial intelligences

While the mechanical beasts Aloy faces are an impressive exercise in imagination and cybernetics, they are not all Horizon has to offer in relation to conceptual exploration of future military technology. (EDITOR’S NOTE – Be warned: spoilers for roughly the midpoint of the game’s plot progression follow.) This is a fun and beautiful game to play, so if you have any desire to check it out, I’d advise you to carve out the time to play it yourself before continuing.

Midway through the game’s central storyline, Aloy does learn about the nature of the world of the old ones, and how it ended. From scattered data logs and time capsules, a picture is pieced together of a highly automated world, with autonomous robotic servants, pervasive telepresence and augmented reality, and most pertinently for this site, a quantum leap in military robotics. One log notes that manned aircraft are analogous to “medieval siege warfare” by the 2040’s, and that robotic probes are being sent to mine the asteroid belt and beyond. Among these wonders, Faro Automated Solutions, a large corporation, begins to build a new line of military robots, able to, among a plethora of other capabilities, consume biomass for fuel, and reproduce themselves. All of this, supposedly, only for emergencies. When a swarm of Faro-built robots malfunctions, and breaks off from their network, it is quickly discovered that they are impossible to stand down, and reproducing at an inconceivably rapid rate, consuming every human, plant, animal and even microbe in their path.

While the idea of a frontline combat bot that can fuel itself and reproduce faster than it can be killed is somewhat farfetched, Horizon does do an incredible job of couching the fantastic in the familiar. A leftover advertisement for the machines describes them as “peacekeeping robots” and uses terminology that sounds ripped from a defense contractor’s PowerPoint presentation. Moreover, the reason that the robots are so difficult to shut down remotely is due to a cyber arms race that essentially forced Faro to turn their creations into what is described as a “cyber apex predator” just to reassure their customers that the machines couldn’t be compromised and turned against them. The idea of robots mindlessly devouring humanity isn’t exactly new, (it was perhaps made most famous by the “grey goo” scenario involving nanotech) but our era of cyber escalation and increasing automation imbues this tale with an eerie sense of verisimilitude.

What is unique in Horizon’s depiction of the dangers of machine intelligence is that the fear does not stem from ideas of machines becoming too intelligent, but rather not intelligent enough. The threat in Horizon is not a human level intelligence, but rather machines that lack the capacity to understand the consequence or morality of their actions. Faro’s bots blindly follow their directives regardless of the cost. In this way, they do seem somewhat similar to the clumsy, single-minded machines of today. It also seems like a far more realistic near-term threat: long before we design a robot that can be dangerous because it has approached human sentience, we’ll have to deal with plenty of machines that are dangerous because they simply don’t know enough beyond satisfying their own pre-programmed appetites.

Alec Medén is a writer-at-large for The Art of the Future Project. For his story “Willie Pete Has No Off Switch,” Alec Medén was a finalist 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 also a past winner of the project’s “Space” war-art challenge with “From A Remove,” judged by bestselling author David Brin, for a story that envisioned the future of space conflict during the last decade of the 21st Century. Alec is majoring in screenwriting and creative writing at Chapman University in Southern California. He can be found on Twitter @alecmeden.