I’ve often heard the phrase, timing is everything. After spending several decades on this planet, I’m inclined to agree. As a fiction writer and content creator, I get new ideas every day and can get excited about any number of them. Sadly, I don’t have the time, energy, or resources to execute them all. But I often wish I could see where all my ideas might lead–to explore whether or not they might work or have the effects I anticipate. But it’s not enough to have a good idea. Even successful execution of a good idea by the right person is not sufficient for it to take hold and have the desired impact. The timing has to be right.
Different life threads have converged in recent months to birth a new idea: my work as a consultant, my life as a fiction writer, a new fellowship and group of talented friends, and early seeds in my youth.
Thread 1. This summer, I’ve been busy writing a scholarly paper about the impact of artificial intelligence on weapons of mass destruction. The paper will represent the culmination of my thoughts for the past few years and present a framework for how data, automation, and machine learning tools will shape nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons in the future. To get my audience into the right frame of mind for such an abstract and complex topic, I wrote a fictional scenario for the introduction of the paper. The year is 2030, and the United States has developed a system that automates its early warning and command and control systems for nuclear weapons using machine learning to ensure reliable retaliation against a nuclear attack. This scenario involves the sort of doomsday device Stanley Kubrick envisioned in the classic film, Dr. Strangelove.
Thread 2. I wrote this fictional scenario strictly for illustrative purposes because it is the most extreme and horrifying example of the future impact of artificial intelligence on nuclear weapons that I could imagine. And then a week later, two long-time nuclear deterrence experts called for exactly such a system in War on the Rocks. The controversial article spawned a number of responses in various scholarly publications, denouncing even the thought of such an idea. But it is one that haunts my nights. The truth is, we’re moving into an era where the speed of warfare is accelerating and shortening the time-frames in which national leaders must reach life or death decisions. Given the advantage of speed, the temptation for U.S. decision-makers to turn to computerized systems to help them make these decisions in a few minutes in order to compete with adversaries who have adopted such systems will only continue to grow.
Thread 3. I was telling my screenwriter friend from L.A. about my scenario, and he said that it would make a great short film. A few minutes later, we decided we should produce such a film in the future. So, I agreed to write a novel this fall, which we would adapt to screenplay in early 2020. I’ve decided to call the novel Rescind Order and leverage a cast of characters I created in 2015 as part of an unpublished novel and write the story as part of a new novel series (The Morgan Shaw Series).
But as I thought more about the tone for the film, I realized that I wanted to go in two different directions at the same time. For the novel/film, I wanted to take a more serious tone and to write the story as a heart-pumping, fast-paced techno-thriller. Having studied and taught about nuclear pop culture for many years, however, I also wanted to build upon Stanley Kubrick’s work with Dr. Strangelove and illustrate the absurdity of relying upon nuclear weapons for security, especially given their potential interactions with new technologies in the future. If Kubrick were alive today, I’m guessing he would be thinking about writing a sequel right about now. I just couldn’t drop the idea of treating the subject as both a serious one and one full of absurdities.
Thread 4. This summer, I was selected as one of fifteen N Square Fellows for the year 2019-2020 and have joined a vibrant cross-sector group of technologists, game designers, policy experts, diplomats, Hollywood filmmakers who are tackling nuclear challenges together in new ways. The N Square Innovators Network is a new kind of network shaped around a bold idea: that welcoming new people, new ideas, and new resources into the nuclear threat field will light it up with ingenuity and innovation. As part of the fellowship, we have the opportunity to create a new approach to raising awareness about the threat posed by nuclear weapons.
I just came home from spending three full days with an amazing group of people and facilitators from N Square, the Rhode Island School of Design, and Technology, Humans and Taste. I told a few of them about my crazy idea… the one I’m about to reveal to you now (wait for it). And no one balked. No one looked at me like I’m crazy. They thought it was super cool, and that I should go for it. So I’ve decided to take the leap. Here goes…
I believe the time is right to have a serious conversation about the future of nuclear weapons and their interactions with new technologies–artificial intelligence, robotics, cyberspace, and social media. But rather than do so through academic publication, I’m going to do something different. In the next year or so, I hope to contribute to the conversation by creating a musical stage play called… American Doomsday.
In case you just did a major double-take, you did read that right. I’m planning to create a musical stage play about the implications nuclear weapons and advanced technologies. At first, I couldn’t figure out where such a strange idea would come from. Why would I want to do such a thing? Because it’s a ton of work. And musical stage plays cost a ton of money to produce.
But as I began to reflect on my youth, I realized the early seeds for the idea were all there… buried under the surface of my consciousness, waiting to sprout and come to life. At the right time. And in the right moment. With the right people by my side.
Digging deep into my past memories, I began to recall my involvement with theater and musicals as a teen and young adult. At the age of 12, I starred in my first play,The Arkansaw Bear by Aurand Harris. Throughout my teenage years, I sang and performed in a professional choir, and our choir even made a record. At the age of 18, I performed several parts in our high school musical, Hammerstein’s South Pacific, and directed my first high school play, Arms and the Man by George Bernard Shaw, at the age of 18. In college, I continued my interest in theater, starring as the lead role in Mother Courage and Her Children by Bertolt Brecht, a play produced by Calvin College’s German Department. The play even opened with me singing an a cappella in German. A year or two later, I starred in and directed another German play, The Broken Jug by Heinrich von Kleist.
Planning to graduate from Calvin College with a major in German and German Literature, I studied many well-known German authors and playwrights. But for my senior project, I decided to focus on the work of Swiss author and dramatist, Friedrich Durrenmatt. I read his entire collection of plays and then penned my own stage play in German, imitating his farcical style and writing my own tragic comedy about student life at Calvin College, focused on the determination of most of my female friends to graduate with an Mrs. rather than a B.A.
When I reflect on all of this, the idea that I would write and produce a musical stage play called American Doomsday makes complete sense. Nonetheless, the idea is big and bold. And I’m not sure I will succeed. But my motto has always been, go big or go home. And being a fiction author, I’m always writing about what ifs… So, I can’t help myself.
Today is day one. I’ve decided to document my journey from start to finish, in part to hold myself accountable… to put a stake in the ground… to make sure I don’t choose instead to bury my head under my covers and forget I ever dreamed something so absurd. If I tell all of you, I can’t hide from this.
I hope you decide to join me on this adventure. There will be times where I don’t believe in my abilities to pull this off. And that’s when i’ll count on your support, cheering me on toward the seemingly impossible. This fall, I’m going to start by writing the novel that will serve as the basis for the screen play and stage play. Let’s do this.