Tag Archives: Africa

She, Robot

“I’m different from you. This doesn’t make me love you any less. It actually makes me love even more.”

Samantha the Operating System, ‘Her’, Spike Jonze, 2013

“Boomer was a good MARCBOT. Those goddamn Mahdi Army scum took him from this world far too early.”

red_one_foxtrot commenting on Reddit, 2013

~

Mike Powell awoke blurry-eyed to a dimly lit room that was almost unbearably hot. Grunting disagreeably, he rolled over and peeled the sheet from his torso. It was heavy with sweat.

“Jesus, how fucking hot is it?” he asked hoarsely of the dark room.

“It is thirty-seven degrees Celsius. Good morning Mike.”

It was a female voice, soft yet remote. He glanced at the figure seated by his bed.

“Kate, I thought we agreed to speak in American. And you know it creeps me out when you watch me sleep.”

“You’re not asleep, Mike. You’re awake. And the United States adopted the Celsius scale in late 2017 after a…”

Mike cut her short with a flapping palm as he wiped his eyes with his other hand.

“Yeah, yeah, alright. Quit your yapping.”

After showering Mike returned to his bunk to get dressed. Most of the others were up and about, the room now buzzing with a muted chatter. As he laced his boots his eyes fell on the bed next to his, its sheets fresh and crisp, undisturbed by sleep. He had liked Murphy. Not the brightest, but a good kid. There were rumours he hadn’t come out too badly from the raid, just a nick in the shoulder. That he was discharged due to what the docs called ‘emotional distress’. That his bot had taken one in the head and that was why he charged the outpost like a lunatic. Just rumours, Powell thought to himself as he made his way to the canteen. Kate followed behind him.

“How are you feeling Mike?”

“I’m just fine Kate. I’m eating.”

There was a short pause.

“You’re not worried about today’s mission? It’s perfectly…”

He cut her off, “I’ve been on plenty of ‘em Kate, and I’m still here. Like I said, I’m fine.”

Another pause.

“Okay Mike. I’m going to go for my tune-up before we leave. I’ll be back shortly.”

He didn’t respond. Kate got up and walked towards the exit. A few other bots were heading that way too. Mike finished his meagre breakfast and left the table.

There were approximately two thousand troops in Camp Obama, the largest US navy camp in Djibouti, and one of the largest in Eastern Africa. Three hundred of these were classed as special operations servicemen. The other two hundred and ninety-nine of these had bots just like Kate. The Synthetic Humanoid Engine had been in service for three years now. It was listed in official Armed Forces literature as ‘equipment’, and in its current incarnation took the form of a female android. The men responded better to female bots. It was equipped with an array of weapons, and its AI was unlike anything that had been seen before. President Winfrey had described the SHE as ‘the greatest military breakthrough since the AK-47.’

Kate was Mike’s second. He had only had his first for a month when a roadside bomb in Kandahar had hit the jeep he was travelling in. It had taken eight hours of surgery to remove the shrapnel from his back and arms. He hadn’t named his first, but by the time he was back in service and was issued a second, the directive was to assign your bot a name. The psychs had informed the top brass that it was ‘conducive to developing a trust system’. Mike had a soft spot for Katharine Hepburn movies, and when he was greeted upon his arrival for duty at Camp Obama by his very own ‘African Queen’ protectress, he thought it was appropriate.

Mike left the camp at midday with his unit, each man flanked in the back of the truck by his bot. Some chatted idly to them: checked on the weather and the sports results back home, had e-mails and Facebook posts read out, that kind of thing. Mike sat quietly, sweating through his fatigues under the Kevlar vest. He winced as the bumps in the road jarred his lower back. The dull pain that had been with him since Kandahar was worse than usual today. He closed his eyes and blocked out the fluttering voices of the bots. His mind drifted back to a training exercise from the academy. They had been split into teams and had to disassemble a live bot. It was supposed to convey the idea to the men that the SHE was just nuts and bolts. Just a machine.

The Captain calmly recapped the orders as the truck neared its objective. There was a camp a few miles to the east. Satellites had picked up possible insurgent activity there, but this had to be confirmed by ground troops before a strike could be authorised. The plan was to head to a nearby ridge and scope out the camp from afar. All fairly routine. The truck slowed to a crawl as it climbed the hill leading to the ridge.

The Cap turned to his bot,

“Satellite pick up anything new, Lucy?”

The bot hesitated as its neural pathways shimmered behind its faceplate.

“Nothing new from HQ, Sir. We are a go for mission.”

The Captain nodded as the truck slowed to a stop.

“Alright ladies, let’s make this quick. In and out and home in time fo-”

A deafening explosion ripped through the truck before he could finish. Mike was thrown to the floor as gleaming rays of sunshine flooded in through a smoking hole where the Captain had been sitting. Wiping his face, Mike’s hand came away soaked in the Cap’s blood. Lucy’s limp, headless body lay writhing and twitching across his legs. The rocket had turned the front half of the truck into a mangled wreck of body parts and circuitry. Gunfire sprayed the panels of the truck, filling the air with miniscule cylinders of sunlight. Mike felt a flashing pain in his leg, and as he turned to crawl towards the back of the truck he felt himself being lifted off the floor. A split second later he was barrelled out of the back and thrown roughly behind a jagged rock, the dense air loaded with the sound of bullets striking metal.

Before he had time to register what had happened, a figure landed with a thud beside him, its back to the rock. He turned to see Kate’s half-melted faceplate, her eyes as still and lifeless as ever. Her body was covered with dents and small holes.

“I can’t walk. My leg…” he started to say. Kate said nothing, but stood and lifted him over her shoulder. She sprinted away from the truck, a hail of bullets shadowing her down the hill that they had rolled up just moments before. Mike, his leg bleeding freely and his head being jolted violently, just had time to look back and survey the scene of the wrecked, flaming truck and the scattered bodies of his comrades, before he lost consciousness.

When Mike woke up the first thing he was aware of was how much his leg, and his head, hurt. The second thing he realised was that he was outside, and it was dark. Clusters of brilliant white stars came slowly into view as he blinked groggily.

“Where am I?” he just about managed to whisper, his own voice barely recognisable.

A soft reply came from above his head,

“You are seventeen point three miles from Camp Obama, Mike. It is currently ten thirty-one p.m.”

He looked up to see a twisted face in the moonlight, its blinking lights now clearly visible, its body leaking fluid.

“What happened to the rest…”

“Mike, we don’t have much time. I’ve done what I can with your leg but you’ll bleed out before long. There are still insurgents looking for us, and I’m too badly damaged to carry you back.”

He glanced down at his thigh to see a blood-soaked shirt wrapped tightly around it. His head felt light and he was having difficulty focusing his eyes.

“Can you call…get a chopper…”

“My communication system has been damaged, I can’t contact the base.”

Mike laughed softly to himself, delirious with pain and fatigue.

“Well that’s that, then. We can’t be taken alive, so you know what to…”

“Mike, I’m going back alone. They’ll send a chopper.”

Mike’s vision was becoming blurry again.

“It’s too far. You’ll never…” he trailed off.

Kate crouched beside him and put her hand on his chest.

“The chopper will be here, Mike. Just stay alive.”

His breath was shallow as he looked up at her.

“I never told you about my first.”

“No, you didn’t. But I’ve read the file.”

Mike stared at the crescent moon that lit the arid landscape, his eyelids quivering.

“Docs said she saved me. Rolled herself right around me in a millisecond and took the brunt of the blast.”

“She did her job, Mike.”

He reached out and took her hand, riddled with bullet holes and covered in an oily residue.

“I blamed her” he said, and laughed again. He fixed his eyes on the flickering lights that shone from beneath her gnarled visage. His grip became limp as his eyes began to close.

“I blamed her” he whispered again, but Kate didn’t hear him. She was sprinting noiselessly across the sand, her feet kicking up mounds of gold that shimmered under the light of the waxing moon.

~

When Mike woke he couldn’t open his eyes to the white light that seemed to envelop him. He felt as if he were floating through the air. Slowly he came to his senses, as a white-coated figure approached him.

“Good afternoon, Lieutenant. Good to have you back.”

Mike looked down at his leg, relieved to find it was still there.

“Chopper got to you just in time Sir. You were pretty close.”

Mike’s throat burned as he tried to speak, his voice a harsh croak, “Kate?”

The doctor looked puzzled for a moment, then smiled.

“Ah yes, your bot. We couldn’t believe she made it to the base. Nearly twenty miles, and most of her systems had completely crashed. It’s a miracle she made it.”

Mike shifted in the bed and lifted his head, his body still lethargic and weak.

“She…she made it?” he asked breathlessly.

The doctor’s smile faltered a little.

“Well, she made it here with your co-ordinates, but the damage was…well, you know…” he trailed off.

Mike lay back on the pillow and stared at the ceiling.

“Can I…see her?”

The doctor fidgeted with his clipboard.

“Well, I’m afraid she’s been…dismantled at this stage Lieutenant.”

He offered a weak smile.

“Well, you get some rest Sir. You’ve earned it. You’ll be issued with a new bot when you’re up and about, don’t you worry.”

As the doctor floated away across the room, Mike slowly turned his head to stare out the window. The midday sun shone down remorselessly from a cloudless sky, the dunes in the distance obscured by the shimmering haze of the desert heat. As his heavy eyelids closed and he drifted into a deep sleep, Mike wondered to himself exactly how hot it was today.


One Nation Under COD

The new Call of Duty video game Black Ops II was released this past week, and looks set to be the latest roaring success in the behemoth that is the COD franchise. The campaign section of the game is more realistic than ever, weaving a fictionalised but credible path through the military history of the late Cold War and into the drone wars of the future. The game play even includes appearances from actual historical figures such as that rascal Manuel Noriega, and contemporary protagonists of the military machine, such as the newly unemployed General David Petraeus. Since each new COD game is basically just an updated rehash of the last, what better excuse than to lazily revisit an old article and examine it in more detail. In considering the question of just how much more realism the producers can infuse the games with, I have come up with the blueprint for the next instalment in the COD universe. The following is a synopsis of the campaign mode for the upcoming Call of Duty Modern Warfare 4: Shit Just Got Real.

Prologue: Your Country Needs You

This preface to the action introduces your character, Buzz Q. America. Buzz is a normal, everyday, freedom-loving teenager from a dusty little farming town in Nebraska. Most of the objectives in this level involve driving a pick-up around town, bringing in the corn at harvest time, and beating up queers and nerds in high school. One day Buzz sees an advert for the military that tells him the terrorists want to take his job, his corn and his freedom. The next day he signs up for the Marine Corps, because Buzz will be damned if some pinko Commie raghead gonna come over here and take his corn. No sir. The rest of the level is mainly made up of filling out application forms in Buzz’s bedroom while listening to the new Kenny Chesney album.

Level 1: Basic Training

In this level Buzz goes to boot camp to become a fully fledged Marine. You will take him through various missions involving firing ranges and assault courses, as well as enjoying the more mundane tasks such as boot-polishing and keeping your porno mag hidden from your Drill Instructor.

You will also undergo a tutorial on how to correctly identify enemy combatants using factors such as robe length, skin tone and beard density. The level concludes with a bonus round called Kebab or Kaboom, in which you have to tell apart bomb-wielding Muslim extremists from harmless, jocular restaurant proprietors. Maximum points are awarded for slaughtering all of them, thus removing any element of doubt.

Level 2: A Man Needs an Aide

Before being approved for active duty you must spend some time as a General’s aide in the Pentagon performing various administrative tasks. Missions will involve updating the official Marine Corps Facebook and Twitter pages with encouraging messages for the troops, summarily shredding and deleting any correspondence between the senior staff and their mistresses, and most importantly, feeding Patton, the General’s goldfish.

In order to complete the level you must master the art of stamping forms in triplicate without getting ink on your fingers, as well as sending letters of condolence to the relatives of deceased soldiers without realising how futile their sacrifice is. As a reward for your hard work there is another bonus round called Game of Drones in which you get to pilot a drone into southern Pakistan while trying to avoid hitting schools and wedding parties.

Level 3: It’s Time for Africa

For your first mission out in the field you are sent to a base in North Africa to stem the tide of Islamic terrorism that hides cunningly amidst the famine and poverty in the region. Buzz has to decide which warlords seem the most trustworthy so he can sell them arms for their child soldiers.

You get your first taste of action here as you take part in a raid on a house in Somalia, killing nine people who were reported by your intelligence network as probable terrorists. The final objective of the level is to chant ‘USA, USA’ loudly on the return journey, keeping in perfect unison with your fellow troops.

Level 4: To Helmand and Back

Buzz’s second tour of duty brings him to Afghanistan’s Helmand Province. Here you will spend most of your time avoiding roadside bombs, getting pissed with the British troops, and wondering aloud why these damn ragheads are so ungrateful to have been given the gift of American democracy.

Another mission in this level allows you to sit in on a CIA interrogation and try your hand at waterboarding a suspect. You then use the information gathered to order an air strike, the targets of which unfortunately turn out to be some hungover British soldiers. The level ends with a morale-boosting visit to the camp by hip-hop sensation Rihanna, who entertains the troops with some of her songs. Your final objective of the level is to masturbate furiously later that night without waking your comrades, then cry yourself to sleep.

Level 5: Enemy of the States

Buzz is nearing the end of his tour of duty and is out on a routine patrol with his platoon one afternoon. You get separated from the others and decide to make your way back to the camp. Passing through some foothills on the way, you see a tray in the middle of the road with a steak sandwich, a six-pack of beer, and a copy of Sports Illustrated on it. Puzzled, you approach it only to feel a rope tighten suddenly around your ankle and pull you up towards an overhead branch. Hanging there upside down, you see a number of insurgents walk towards you.

‘Pathetic infidel. Works every time,’ says one of them, as he knocks you over the head with his shoe and everything goes black.

The rest of the level mostly comprises enduring horribly painful torture at the hands of your captors. As well as the physical abuse, the terrorists play theme tunes from TV shows like Cheers and Friends at full volume in your cell twenty-four hours a day. Eventually your sanity is all but eroded and you are reduced to a quivering wreck, rocking yourself to sleep in a bed of your own faeces as you try in vain to kill yourself by swallowing your own teeth, all the while singing along in a hushed frenzy, ‘Where everybody knows your name…’

At the end of the level you manage to escape after noticing that your cell is simply a hut made out of mud that can be broken through quite easily in a matter of hours. As you drag your broken body through the desert in a haze of pain, hunger and thirst, you think to yourself, ‘This really hasn’t been my day, my week, my month, or even my year.’ Eventually, on the cusp of a miserable and ignominious death, you arrive at base camp and collapse at the front gate.

Epilogue: War…What Is It Good For?

The last level of the game deals with Buzz’s recuperation after being flown home. The gameplay takes you through months of painful physical rehabilitation, intense psychological torment and post-traumatic stress, and the inevitable substance abuse and relationship problems that follow. Along the way you receive a letter from the military thanking you for your service and your sacrifice. You return to the cornfields of Nebraska a hero, and a husk of a human being.

Your final objective of the game takes place some months later. On a bitterly cold winter’s night, tired of the demons that allow you only fitful sleep, drunk with whiskey, and filled with an indescribable emptiness, you discharge your service weapon for the last time.

A map of Afghanistan and its mineral resources lies sprawled across the desk of a US General in the Pentagon. An aide drops a letter on his desk. The General reads the letter and sighs softly to himself. Folding it over, he places it carefully in a drawer that is overflowing with pages. He stands and gazes out the window in reflection. He looks down at his hands, then out the window once more. After a moment he sits down at his desk and goes back to studying the map.


Hungry Hearts (and Minds)

The word tragedy has been thrown around an awful lot in the media over the past week or so. The tragedy of a young singer’s untimely, if not exactly unexpected death. The tragedy of the murder of 92 innocent people in Norway by a deluded lunatic who doesn’t deserve to get the press coverage and infamy that he inevitably will. And almost as an afterthought, the tragedy of millions of people, including around 800,000 children, who are at risk of death by starvation in the Horn of Africa over the coming weeks and months.

The fact that this story has reached the news outlets this week at all is simply a matter of mathematics. Famine and drought are a constant in this particular part of Africa, but the situation in Somalia only qualified as a famine under the UN’s very specific definition a few days ago. The fact is that Somalia’s recent history is a tragedy in itself, and this is just the latest chapter.

Most of the country outside the capital of Mogadishu is ruled by the Islamic al-Shabab group, a gang of militant rebels whose name literally means ‘the lads’ in Arabic, a translation that suggests them to be slightly more laidback and easygoing than the grim reality. Al-Shabab has stated that there is no famine, and have refused to allow any foreign aid to enter the affected areas. Obviously their resident statisticians noticed some discrepancies in the UN’s number-crunching.

Being a third-world country whose government is at war with oppressive Islamic militants, you would expect to see some American involvement in the area. Unfortunately though the Somalians have neither oil in the ground nor lithium in the mountains, so don’t expect to see Operation Freedom is Awesome or some other bullshit reach their shores any time soon. The last time the Americans were in Mogadishu was 1993, and they lost eighteen men after a chopper crash, the story that became the book and film Black Hawk Down. It is estimated that 1,000 or so Somalians died that day too, but unfortunately they couldn’t find any African actors with the screen presence of Josh Hartnett so they ignored that side of the story.

Of course the Americans still have a huge presence in that part of Africa, but it’s kept very quiet. Troops in Djibouti are engaged in ‘hearts and minds’ campaigns, which in fairness involve building schools and hospitals. What they also do, however, is train and arm Ethiopian soldiers, many of whom were involved when Ethiopia officially invaded Somalia in 2006. Anything to get rid of an Islamic threat, even when history is literally blue in the face from telling America that arming and training militants in volatile areas will probably backfire at some stage.

The Americans have also had some direct involvement in Somalia over the last few years. In 2006 the CIA handed over shedloads of cash to the same warlords that shot down Josh and the lads in’93, in an effort to persuade them to find some highly sought after terrorists. Needless to say this plan did not end in success. The US has also carried out a number of airstrikes targeting Islamic terrorists in the country. The first was in January 2007 and the Pentagon claimed to have eliminated ‘senior al-Qa’ida leadership’. However, reports from aid workers on the ground stated that the strike had killed a group of innocent civilians grouped around a fire to ward off mosquitoes. At least two more strikes occurred in the following weeks, neither of which were successful either, according to non-American diplomats in the area.

As if it wasn’t a miserable enough place to live after decades of being a tumultuous mixture of decadent, corrupt government, extreme poverty and botched Western intervention, Somalia is now facing the worst drought and famine it has seen in recent times. The refuge centre of Dadaab, in Kenya, has seen over 100,000 Somalians take the dangerous road to its gates already this year, putting the total at 380,000, and growing quickly. The UN and other aid workers do not have enough resources to feed everyone, and tensions are high. Stories abound of refugees being charged a fee to be supplied with food. Rape and assault are widespread. And these are just the people who were lucky enough to escape the country.

The financial response from some wealthy countries has been less than impressive, but then again we’ve seen before that much of this money invariably ends up in the wrong hands. Until structures are in place that ensure the aid actually gets to those who need it, we will have to persist with the band-aid approach whenever a new gaping wound appears, which will be happening all the more frequently in coming years given the impending weather patterns and the expected increase of drought and famine. Ordinary people are generally very generous and the amount raised by charities for African aid on an ongoing basis is laudable, but the reality is that it’s not enough to fix the problem.

The fact is that we live in a world where we can see a documentary about a man who weighs over a thousand pounds and has to be forklifted out of his house because of his own gluttony and stupidity, then minutes later watch a charity appeal that shows an emaciated child too weak to lift its head from starvation and disease. Sympathy and charity is all well and good, but without major governmental change, implementation of proper education systems, and a complete overhaul of Western attitudes towards Africa, all we are doing is easing the suffering ever so slightly, while the situation gets steadily worse.

As a country that had to suffer through a famine of its own long ago we should realise more keenly than most that while certain conditions are inevitable, Western interference in Africa throughout history has almost certainly exacerbated its problems rather than remedied them. A trend which looks set to continue long after this story goes away. Tragedy doesn’t even begin to cover it.