Machines against men

The question of how much autonomy and authority machines should be given by their human masters - and where the line between master and subject really lies - has always been one of great interest in the science fiction genre. Now the issue is real enough that it can be addressed in books set in the present or very near future, including Collateral Damage, our latest Dreamland installment.

I don't want to give away the plot (or the outcome) of the book, nor divert readers from the real focus of the book, which as always should be on the people - Zen, Bree, Ray Rubeo, and newcomer Turk Mako. But the question of autonomous war machines and their potential for good and bad is one of the things that interested me most as I worked.

We long ago passed the stage where a pilot, either on the spot or in a remote bunker, could designate a target and fire a missile that would carry itself to the attack point. We are now at the stage where weapon systems can make elementary decisions about how to carry out the strike - what ECMs to deploy, for example. But soon - very, very soon - we will be able to tell the machine this: I want you to attack all of the enemy approaching this position. The machine will scan the area, decide which should be struck, plan the attack, and carry it out. Indeed, it can be argued that the most sophisticated anti-missile systems already do this, so applying it to ground targets is not much of a leap at all.

What happens next? Science fiction writers have often wondered about machines' ability to decide whether to go to war. Most of us would say that's not a serious concern, that men will always be in the loop to make the final decision - but will they?

Collateral Damage makes some of the debate explicit, using an accident (or is it?) as the catalyst. It also looks at the human side of the equation: What does the man who invented the system think and feel when things go wrong?

I don't mean to make the book sound like a philosophical tome: Collateral Damage is basically about action and flying and all the cool stuff that Dreamland has featured over the years. But just as the bigger issues loom behind the scenes in real life, so do they in the novel.

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