Theo Martin’s play SUNNY is a finalist entry in the Atlantic Council’s Art of the Future Project AI-themed short play contest about the future of conflict.
The contest’s final judge, playwright George Brant, noted Martin’s play that SUNNY’s “riff on AI warfare feels like an extremely probable one: that human soldiers might one day be paired with an AI partner. The relationship between the two warriors was both humorous and moving, with the adage that “you’re fighting for the guy next to you” taken to a new plane, resulting in human projections onto a AI partner that lead to tragedy.”
[Darkened stage, as Judge begins to speak spotlight focuses on seated man in a uniform sitting straight
up with his hands on his knees]
Lance Corporal, you have indicated you are willing to make a statement. Do you understand your
legal rights and how this voluntary statement may affect you?
Lance Corporal Rodgers:
Yes, Sir. My lawyer explained my rights and told me that explaining my actions
and my feelings of remorse may help as you consider a sentence.
It may. You are free to say anything you think will help me understand your case, but know that it
may also negatively affect you. I may also question you and you do not have the right to refuse to
answer my questions, as per the Uniform Code of Military Justice although you may terminate your
statement at anytime. Do you understand?
Yes Sir, I understand.
Very well, make your statement.
I was assigned to the UN Latvian peacekeeping force in December. We were told that because
America had withdrawn from the world in the mid-2020s we were the only country that hadn’t taken a
side and so could separate the Democratic Union forces from the Confederation of Independent States
on the Riga front. I was part of a combat dyad and given a patrol route near the border.
[Stage illuminated, reveals a city street, Lance Corporal Rodgers (now in combat gear), a strange looking
compatriot, and several civilians]
I had been with my dyad partner, SUU37, or “Sunny” as I called him, for a year. We related well together
and were an efficient dyad, passing all of the pre-deployment combat and human relations tests. That
day… that day is still hard to talk about….
[Rodgers and Sunny walk slowly down the street, constantly on watch, but outwardly friendly to the
locals and each other]
Rodgers, how much longer do you think we’ll be stuck in sector 45?
Shit, I’ve got no idea, but I hope not much longer. There are way too many people and cars
that move down this damn street and we are supposed to check them all? I would much rather go back
to sector 33, and walk around boring and deserted warehouses. Hey, is this our check-point?
Yes. We are supposed to wait here for drone link-up and stay until the end of rush-hour.
Sunny, I know man, calm down. Remember what I taught you, you don’t have to follow your
script all of the time.
I do recall your instructions but I do have to follow my script. Anyway, the drones are on station,
30,000 ft. They are beginning their scanning run, I have control.
One of these days you’ll get it. Anyway, how does it look?
[Stage full dark, Rodgers still in dirty combat gear in the corner under spotlight]
Lance Corporal Roberts, excuse me, were you purposefully trying to get your dyad partner, a
combat android designated SUU37, to violate its programing?
Sir, not exactly. We had spent a year together and in close and constant contact. I was trying to
make Sunny easier to be around I guess. When a dyad is first formed and you receive your android
partner they are quiet, boring. You spend every waking moment together. At first it is stultifying because
he just stares at you. While training together I started to talk to him like a person, for my own sanity I
guess and he responded. And as you know they spread out dyads very far because of the capability that
the combat androids give the team, I didn’t see other people very much once we deployed.
Very well Lance Corporal, continue.
[Lights back on, Rodgers at the front of the stage, backdrop reduced lighting]
So we had been at the checkpoint along route 3 for about 30 minutes with continuous drone
coverage while scanning the cars and trucks along the road for weapons being trafficked to the
separatists. The drones found an indicator that a van was carrying weapons and alerted us.
[Rodgers steps back into scene]
Rodgers, the drones have spotted something, an unusual magnetic signature in the eighth
Ok Sunny, let’s go check it out. I’ll approach the passenger side and you stay behind and use
your millimeter wave radar.
No problem boss.
A little personality! Was that so hard?
[Sunny stares at Rodgers without expression]
Maybe it was…
[Walk off stage and walk back on with stopped van full of people]
[Fidgets with box on chest]
[Rodgers steps forward and narrates the incident]
I turned on my translator and had it explain in Latvian and then Russian that we wanted
everyone to get out of the van and we were going to conduct an electromagnetic search. Everyone in
the van was agitated. It is always hard to tell if it is because they are afraid we are going to find
something or if it was Sunny. Up close it is obvious that he is not human and they kept pointing at him.
But they got out of the van and we set up for the search using high power radar and the magnetic
imaging sensor from the drone.
Why did they have to be out of the van for this Lance Corporal? Couldn’t you have scanned them
while they were still in the vehicle?
Sir, technically you can, but many of the locals have been lead to believe the high power radar
and magnetic sensors from the drones and Sunny would give them cancer. Every time we scan a car
without pulling out the people there is a huge protest down town.
But there are protests and obviously violence when you stop and search the cars?
Yes Sir. But when there is a protest down town the headquarters sees it.
So… as I was staying, we started to scan the van and the drone made a lower pass to get the
full effect of its backscatter sensor. The other cars and trucks were honking and trying to get around.
This can block the scan and cause false readings so we tried to stop them.
[Rodgers steps back into the scene and resumes acting out the events]
Sunny, keep those people back damn it!
Rodgers, you know that I cannot move while scanning, I am almost done.
Fuck! OK, I’ll do it.
[Rodgers turns his back on the van’s passengers and heads behind the van to stop the people and cars
that are trying to get around them]
Rodgers, I am done, we have a problem.
[sounding harried and rushed]
Damn it, of course! Call…
[Loud bang, one of the van’s passengers shoots Rodgers and another throws a hand grenade at Sunny]
[Rodgers stands at the front of the stage, illuminated by a spotlight]
Sir, I’m not sure I really want to continue anymore.
That is your right, but you haven’t covered anything that isn’t on the footage from the drones. I
have to advise you that you have not told me anything that would affect my decision.
[Softly swears under his breath, sighs]
OK. When I was shot, the armor piercing bullet
penetrated my body armor. I was out for a few seconds while my vest’s medical kit shot me full of drugs
and brought me back. Everything hurt, but I had to check on Sunny.
[Rodgers steps back into the scene]
[Rolls on to his back, looks back at the group with the shooter]
Are you OK?! Can you hear me?
[Rodgers staggers up, points his weapon at the group as they scatter. He moves around the other side of
the van where Sunny is on the ground]
Sunny! Damn it, damn it, damn it.
[reaches down to Sunny’s torso and opens a panel and
presses several buttons]
Autonomous Combat Android SUU37 online. Systems diagnosis indicates I have suffered severe
No shit Sunny. Can you get up? Can you fight?
I am unable to move Rodgers, but I can fight. You are injured. You should call for an evacuation.
Not yet. Call HQ and ask for a quick response force. We both need to be recovered. Watch this
sector, I’m going around the front of the van to see if I can’t figure out what is going on and who shot
me. Did you see anything before you were hit by the grenade?
No, I saw nothing. Rodgers be careful, the van contains several rockets and many light weapons.
Fuck. Good work finding it, Sunny.
The drone found it.
You should have just said thanks, dumb robot.
Stop. Did Sunny joke with you? Are you sure you heard that correctly? Both of your audio
recordings are damaged.
[Rodgers stands up, steps out of scene]
Sir he did. That was not the first joke he ever told, he was never very good at them, I’m not
sure he fully understood humor? Did you not know the ACAs can experience emotion?
I’ve read they were intelligent enough to, but I’ve never heard it described.
Most of them develop some emotions eventually. His jokes were never any good, but once in
a while he would make one.
Very well, please continue with your statement.
[Rodgers steps to the front of the stage, but moves to the side as the action continues on the stage and
serves as the narrator]
I came around the van, the separatists had been back and the floor boards were ripped up. I
caught one pulling a weapon out of the floor and was able to grab and cuff him thanks to the enhanced
strength of my suit. As I continued towards where I thought they had fled to I saw an intense flash of
light and what I later realized was a rocket wiz by my head and hit the van. The warhead detonated and
destroyed the van and Sunny. I knew he was gone because his icon disappeared from my visor.
[Rodgers falls to his knees and puts his head in his hands]
Rodgers: He was gone. I know that sounds odd, to describe a combat robot as human but damn it he
was. He was my friend and I cared about him like any other friend I’ve ever had. We spent nearly a year
and a half together. We had spent hours sitting in vacant buildings making small talk to fight off
boredom on surveillance details and at the other end I’d been in firefights with him. I saw his sense of
humor, his humanity even. He was as real to me as any human I’ve ever met.
Aren’t you being melodramatic? He’s a machine, we could pull his drive and install it in a new
body. How does that justify your actions?
Don’t you understand? His memory, who he is, is in an armored capsule in his
chest. If that is breached, there is nothing that can be done. He would have still appeared on my display
as long as his core was functioning. Once his icon went out, he was gone, he was dead. My friend was
I understand the mechanical properties of an ACA. Do you want to continue to eulogize a
destroyed machine or describe to me why you killed all of those people?
Rodgers, please go on, finish your story.
[Looks off stage towards judge]
You don’t fucking understand but fine. He was dead. I saw
where the rocket came from. I just shot. And shot, and shot. My mind just… it went. I don’t know how to
describe it. I felt like I was watching myself carry out the action. I was shot at several times, I was hit a
few times, and I assume that is in your evidence?
Yes, but the locals report they were shooting in self-defense, against a man who appeared to
have gone insane.
What was I supposed to do?! I was all alone! They were trying to kill me and they
had just killed my friend! What the fuck do you know about it?! Have you ever been shot at? Have you
watched your friend die?! Have you had to pick the least shitty option? Was I supposed to wait there for
the crowd to kill me? They shot a rocket at me and killed Sunny, what was next? The Quick Reaction
Force was 10 minutes away, a lot could have happened in 10 minutes.
[A chair had been brought out during the exchange behind Rodgers, he slumps down into it, drained]
I don’t have anything else to say.
I think I have what I need to make my decision. Thank you for your candor Lance Corporal
Rodgers. Bailiff? Please take the Lance Corporal back to the holding area to await my decision.
[Rodgers is seated, at attention, in a fresh uniform. Another person in a uniform is across the stage from
Staff Judge Advocate (SJA):
Lance Corporal Rodgers, as per the artificial intelligence justice amendment
of 2050 to the Uniform Code of Military Justice I am required to ask if you consent to judgment by an
artificial intelligence that will consider your case without use of its emotions.
Do understand that the AI can assess punishment up to and including death?
Ok, I believe the judgment is ready, Judge?
Captain Mills, thank you. Lance Corporal Rodgers, please stand.
Your case was difficult for me to decide. As you know I am an artificial intelligence, similar to,
although more advanced than your ACA SUU73. As per the UCMJ I am not allowed to use any emotional
response in deciding your case and I can only consider the facts and ethics of your decisions and actions.
Your effort to save a fellow intelligent being is noteworthy but as held by case law and ethical theories a
low grade AI such as a ACA is less important than a human being. The U.S. Government vs. Lopez
established the merit of biological life over synthetic intelligence under the IQ threshold of the AI law of
2036. ACAs are not above the AI life threshold and as combat robots are considered expendable, no
matter how you feel about them. I also considered your injury and the effect of the cocktail of drugs in
your system and the effect of losing a friend, even if artificial, on your actions that killed 15 people, only
three of them armed. I then have determined that I will set-aside the death penalty and instead
sentence you to life in prison with the possibility of parole.
[Rodgers head drops and he is passively lead away]
Theo Martin is an active duty Major in the United States Marine Corps and serves as an Inspector-Instructor supporting a selected Marine Corps reserve unit in Virginia Beach, VA. He has deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan, Japan, and the Philippines and has authored several non-fiction articles on international affairs and warfare. This is his first fiction piece.