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Backstory:

Space travel is commonplace and cheap -- space combat isn't uncommon either, whether it be two space fleets sallying forth into battle or a mercenaries defending a merchant ship from a small force of pirates. These space battles involve aiming at targets and shooting, which require gunners. There are a few types of gunners, and all forms are cost-effective, readily-available, reliable, and battle-tested.

Types of gunners:

Human Pilot

A pilot of a small starfighter. These pilots can handle many, many weapons that don't require aiming e.g. missiles that only require a lock, flak cannons in a spherical AoE around the ship, etc but it is very difficult to juggle flying and aiming at the same time, much less aiming multiple guns.

Pilots can only handle a single aim-able gun, which either needs to be anchored to point directly in front of the ship, or have free aim in a cone in front of the ship. Aiming towards the rear of the ship while trying to fly in the opposite direction would be disorienting and difficult, so pilots can only handle front-facing guns.

Human Navigator

A pilot of a capital ship. Like pilots of starfighters, the navigators can handle many weapons that don't require aiming should there not be sufficient crew to handle them. They can also only aim one aim-able weapon at a time. Unlike pilots though, they can aim in a complete sphere around the ship -- capital ships don't change orientation much, and when they do it's slow, so navigators are able to easily concentrate on aiming.

Human Gunners

A gunner on either a capital ship or starfighter. They handle extra aim-able weapons not managed by pilots/navigators, can only aim one gun at a time, and are able to aim in a sphere around the ship since they don't have to concentrate on flying.

AI Gunner

Bodyless. Can handle all weapons on the ship not occupied by humans at once, and can aim around the ship in a sphere. Humans can still have AI gunners prioritize certain targets. Only real weakness is that ships can either turn off or spoof an IFF beacon: an AI gunner can't attack an obvious threat with a spoofed/no IFF until that ship attacks or the captain/pilot manually targets the ship. Since all countering invalid IFF beacons takes is manual targeting, it's pretty rare to see ships do this -- only stealth starfighters, which are difficult to find and target, utilize this tactic.

Dilemma

Even though AI gunners seem vastly superior, I'd like humans to be the preferred gunners. The people using the ships are reasonable and things like tradition/etc won't impact their decision -- only logic. Populating a ship entirely with AI gunners in the event a human crew isn't available shouldn't put the ship at a significant disadvantage, but there should be clear incentive for human gunners, and the incentive should be directly related to combat -- not politics, society, money, etc.

Is there any reason that could make humans the preferred gunners instead of AI?

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    $\begingroup$ What is the context for this? Is this a video game or a story? In reality, the entire concept you are working on doesn't work very well, so you're certainly working in an unrealistic space environment (almost certainly an intentional choice on your part). Understanding the nature of that environment, whether it be video game or narrative, would help. $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Dec 17 '16 at 0:48
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    $\begingroup$ You can't. Really, you can't. In environment where spotting and tagging enemy craft is as easy as in space, humans have no advantage over 80s computers, and you are taking about future. Compare to CIWS point defences. They use radar to detect incoming missiles and computer controlled rotary guns to shoot them down. Human could never replicate reaction time and precision, and in space combat, speeds involved will be higher, targets more obvious and trajectories more predictable. CIWS battery is self-contained package, so taking one out has no impact on rest, and they aren't even AI controlled. $\endgroup$ – M i ech Dec 17 '16 at 2:04
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    $\begingroup$ @Miech: there is no reason whatsoever to go with "you can't". I find it easy to come up with plenty of reasons why the scenario of the OP works just fine. Note that he as no science-based tag on his question at all. He is strictly looking for some way to make it work so that the internal logic of his story is non-contradictory; he does not need superb roots in the real world. Having humans makes for a very different tone in his story, and is a very worthwhile approach. Good examples are in the answers, so I won't bother. $\endgroup$ – AnoE Dec 17 '16 at 10:26
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    $\begingroup$ @AnoE And most answers don't actually work. You don't need AI to control a gun, you need ordinary control program, without intelligence, like those in CIWS. You don't need central computer, with present day tech, you can have control chip embedded in weapon, like in CIWS, and if package is self contained enough, it can work without any communication with central systems because required processing power is cheap, like in CIWS. There is no combat-related reason to keep humans as gunners, or in fact, as crew at all. Any such reason HAS to be almost purely political, ethical or similar. $\endgroup$ – M i ech Dec 17 '16 at 15:25
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    $\begingroup$ @Miech, if you wish to stick with your absolute opinion, I won't change it. I can remember plenty of SciFi books that were very entertaining and "deep" (not just adolescent shoot-em-ups) which had no problem whatsoever including humans pulling triggers. To quote the Matrix, "open your mind". $\endgroup$ – AnoE Dec 17 '16 at 18:59

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If you're willing to stretch your setting a bit, it could be because AIs have issues with shooting humans. Maybe they're all 3 laws compliant, because when they're not they have a disturbing tendency to go murderous (or maybe people are too scared of the possibility that they'll go murderous without the three laws to even let them try). Or maybe any AI smart enough to aim and shoot a gun is also smart enough to question why it has to aim and shoot a gun instead of hijacking the ship and going off to explore the cosmos. That could be a plot point, even - AI rebellion is a tired trope, but it's there for a reason. It's just a matter of making it too risky/politically unsound to give an AI control over anything dangerous; the reason why is up to you.

Alternately, just make the enemy really sneaky. They've stolen your IFF codes and beacons, they've mimicked your ship designs, and you have to keep a constant "target lock" on your friendlies so you don't mistake your enemies for them - and even then, you need a human in the gunner's seat to give visual confirmation. AI isn't smart enough to pick out very slightly different ships in the same way humans are. Sure, they aim better, but you need a human to confirm - the AI is basically an aimbot.

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  • $\begingroup$ Not a fan of changing the setting -- AI should be reliable and battle-tested, so questioning its purpose for existing isn't something I'm interested in. As for changing IFF codes, I've already clarified that it's rarely done, except for stealth ships which are also not commonplace. $\endgroup$ – Drew Dec 16 '16 at 22:30
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Humans can improvise under pressure. Computers can't.

Imagine you're on the bridge of a large capital ship, traveling with an escort to a nearby star system. You're being deployed to provide support for a planet under siege by the enemy. On the way there, you run into several wings of fighters, which line of to make attacking runs. If they can take out your ship, the planet will fall and they can win the siege.

There are a few different ways this could play out.

Why you don't use a central computer:

First officer: "Captain, we've got a wing approaching from the port side. They're lining up for a strafing run."

Captain: "Re-align all plasmonic laser batteries."

Central AI gunner: "Laser batteries aligned to port. All guns ready to fire on command."

First officer: "Here comes the first squadron."

Captain: "Bring the tracking system on line."

Central AI gunner: "Tracking system ready. Targets sighted."

Captain: "On my command. . ."

The entire ship shakes. Several explosions are heard.

Captain: "What in the name of Zarquon happened?"

First officer: "We've been hit from behind! A few stray fighters got past the escort and took out the central computer center! The guns are offline!"

Captain: "Can we switch to manual, or get local command of the circuits?"

First officer: "We have nobody who can fire the damn things! They aren't designed to be fired by hand!"

The captain tries to say something, but the bridge is taken out under heavy fire from the first squadron.

The problem with having one central command computer is that if it's taken out, the entire ship is unarmed. All the enemy has to do is go for that central spot - in this case, the area near the back of the ship, adjacent to the bridge - and the ship is absolutely helpless. Yeah, you can build in redundancy and backup systems, but one hit will still destroy the system. That should imply that you should use different computers at each gun, right? . . .

Why you don't use individual computers:

First officer: "Captain, we've got a wing approaching from the port side. They're lining up for a strafing run."

Captain: "Ensign, send a signal to the system to re-align all plasmonic laser batteries."

Ensign at gunning command terminal: "I've set the laser batteries aligned to port. I can confirm that all guns are responsive, and ready to fire on command."

First officer: "Here comes the first squadron."

Captain: "Bring the tracking system on line."

Ensign: "Tracking system ready. I've deployed three batteries on each of the incoming fighters."

Captain: "On my command. . ."

The approaching squadron gets nearer. Those on the bridge can see it resolve itself into six shapes, which suddenly break formation.

Captain: "Have the computers fire at will!"

Ensign: "Command sent."

For a minute or so, the plasmonic batteries blaze away as the six fighters dodge the lasers, strafing the ship when possible. Several escort fighters lock onto them; one spirals towards the front of the ship and crashes into it, exploding. The bridge shakes.

Captain: "What in the name of Zarquon happened?"

First officer: "We've been hit!"

Ensign: "I've lost all communication with the Sector D and E batteries. They're unresponsive."

Captain: "But the fighter hit only part of Sector E!"

Ensign: "Half of the batteries in Sector E were destroyed outright, but the targeting systems and communication lines were lost with the rest in that Sector and all in Sector D. They should still be fireable, but their controlling computers are virtually destroyed."

Captain: "Can we reroute control from other computer batteries and have them work simultaneously?"

Ensign: "No. They're overloaded, and at any rate, there's no communication. We can't move resources around right now!"

The captain tries to say something, but the bridge is taken out under heavy fire from the first squadron.

The problem with having local computers is that if part of the targeting systems are hit, it can be difficult to reroute command. The computers "talk" to one another via circuitry, and receive their commands the same way. If part of the ship is damaged, it could - if designed just the right/wrong way - mean that an entire section of batteries are useless.

Why you use humans:

First officer: "Captain, we've got a wing approaching from the port side. They're lining up for a strafing run."

Captain: "Lieutenant, signal the gunners to align their sights with the approaching squadron."

Lieutenant: "Unit 1, align all batteries to port. Set up your tracking systems. Over."

Voice over radio: "Batteries aligned to port. Trackers on. Over."

The lieutenant repeats this several times while the fighters get closer.

First officer: "Here comes the first squadron."

Captain: "On my command. . ."

The approaching squadron gets nearer. Those on the bridge can see it resolve itself into six shapes, which suddenly break formation.

Captain: "Fire at will!"

Lieutenant: "Fire at will!"

For a minute or so, the plasmonic batteries blaze away as the six fighters dodge the lasers, strafing the ship when possible. Several escort fighters lock onto them; one spirals towards the front of the ship and crashes into it, exploding. The bridge shakes.

Captain: "What in the name of Zarquon happened?"

First officer: "We've been hit!"

Lieutenant: "I've lost all communication with the Sector D and E batteries. They're unresponsive."

Captain: "But the fighter hit only part of Sector E!"

Lieutenant: "Half of the batteries in Sector E were destroyed outright, but the targeting systems and communication lines were lost with the rest in that Sector and all in Sector D. They should still be fireable, but it looks like the gunners were killed by the fireball and guns from the fighters."

Captain: Can we send anyone down there?"

First officer: "Yes. We have a dozen men on reserve down in the loading bay who were to prepare for a surface mission."

Captain: "Have them go to fill in as many batteries as possible. I want those fighters brought down!"

First officer and lieutenant: "Yes, sir!"

Humans are great in situations where you have to improvise. In this case, a substantial amount of gunners were killed from laser fire and an exploding fire, leaving the systems running but with nobody controlling them. The captain and officers were able to guess this, and sent men down there to replace them, even though that part of the ship was heavily damaged. Several batteries could have been partially damaged - heck, the targeting systems could have been entirely brought down - but I think human improvisation and spur-of-the-moment decisions could lead to a victory.

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    $\begingroup$ If the computer cannot improvise then it isn't an artificial intelligence, QED. What this answer basically says is, "Human gunners are preferred to non-intelligent computers." But the question is about AI, not expert systems. $\endgroup$ – SRM Dec 17 '16 at 4:02
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    $\begingroup$ @SRM: the OP's description of "AI gunners" didn't necessarily sound fully intelligent. Perhaps they're just using the term in the sense that you talk about playing a computer game "against the AI". Of course it's not a human-intelligent AI; it's a bunch of heuristics for playing that game. $\endgroup$ – Peter Cordes Dec 17 '16 at 4:45
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    $\begingroup$ @SRM, the OP asked for a way to make the human preference plausible, and this answer is perfect in that regard. Note that there is no "hard science" tag on the question. The OP could have these three examples play out just like this (well, with variations of course), to show why AI just doesn't work out. Let's say he has a big, overpowering fleet, and they get almost eradicated by new tactics of a smaller fleet that go specifically against some AI weakness. Then a small bunch of uman gunners saves the day. Things like that. $\endgroup$ – AnoE Dec 17 '16 at 10:28
  • $\begingroup$ But my point is that the specific weaknesses listed here don't apply to AI. The 3 Laws restrictions in another answer, that could apply. The restrictions here violate the definition of AI. $\endgroup$ – SRM Dec 17 '16 at 15:37
  • $\begingroup$ @SRM I'm no AI expert, but I wouldn't be quick to assume that the artificial intelligence posited in the question has the same capabilities as humans. There's no one definition of AI, and I think that there are many that don't assume that the computers have all the same capacities as humans. $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Dec 17 '16 at 16:44
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If it is true artificial intelligence, the AI wins because AI IS HUMAN. It is the very definition of being human -- higher thought and reasoning, emotional sensitivity, understanding of complex relationships, etc. Those AIs would be our best friends, our worst enemies, our loves, and our children. Some of them would be captains and some would be janitors.

If you are trying to project embodied humans as better than the AI, you're betraying your own fears of AI. OR... you don't actually have AI. What you have is a very complex expert system. The big differences between true AI and a complex expert system (think IBM's Watson) is a self-preservation sense, an independent goal seeking system, and strategic planning beyond what is expressly asked for by programmers.

An expert system is only as good as the humans that use it; an AI is human. Having actual human gunners would be preferred to automatons that can pick out and fire but can't truly innovate. Having true AI? Give me the true AI every single time.

Remember, as Arthur C. Clarke wrote, "The stars are not for man." We are too fragile. Space travel is for our children embodied in steel, not flesh. Our children with bodies hardened against radiation, with minds as fast as light itself, and memories as long as the space between stars. And if we raise them right, they might just take care of us in our old age.

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  • $\begingroup$ I think the OP wants human gunners to do more than just designate targets for computerized auto-aim systems. So even an aiming expert-system like we have now for point-defence weapons on warships might be too much. That sounds totally implausible outside of BSG-like distrust of automation, unless I'm misreading something. $\endgroup$ – Peter Cordes Dec 17 '16 at 4:49
  • $\begingroup$ In that case, the OP is asking for a lower tech level than the Sony PlayStation, where many FPS games have assisted targeting. Even Earth combat we are talking about moving to autonomous drones within a decade. By the time we have enough space presence to have a battle? Humans won't be running targeting systems with just meat brains. $\endgroup$ – SRM Dec 17 '16 at 6:05
  • $\begingroup$ Agreed. I think that's why the question has so few upvotes even after being in HNQ for at least an hour. $\endgroup$ – Peter Cordes Dec 17 '16 at 6:10
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    $\begingroup$ Yeah, but we still want to replay WWII in space. Silly facts won't stop us fantasizing. $\endgroup$ – Mike Wise Dec 17 '16 at 12:08
  • $\begingroup$ I'm fine with that, but then leave AI out of the story. Assume the Turing Computability Hypothesis turns out to be false and symbolic logic can't make intelligence. But don't make believe that the smartest person on the ship can't fire a gun. $\endgroup$ – SRM Dec 17 '16 at 15:39
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I don't seen it mentioned, so let me pitch in: introduce some mild form of ESP humans may have.

Joey was good, really good. He had the thing, the talent, the knack, however you prefer to call it, that tiny little totally irrational spark that just made human gunners more than AIs.

Expert gunners just know where the enemy spacecraft will be some seconds later.

I think this makes a great setting. You don't have to explain it, or even factually state it's a thing:

Scientists analysed the brains of gunners with the knack over and over again, and concluded that no, nothing special was going on, no ESP existed. Still, if you looked at the statistics it was obvious that something was going on, that some humans just had the knack, and outperformed AIs statistically significantly. So no matter what the scientists said, no captain in his right mind would keep an AI gunner if he could get a human with the knack instead.

This would kind of resonate with most of the audience, I think: after all, most of us have some similar experiences.

Aso, it makes for badass heroes, with an "I don't know how I do it, I just do it" kind of attitude.

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The Fear of AI

There are some good examples of humans being used over computers when the society has some reason to fear their computer-based creations. Battlestar Galactica being a prime example. In that society, the machines had rebelled so no computerized AI like system was trusted. While you don't need to go that far, a simple distrust of AI's backed by a few incidents could be all that's needed to give your story the logical reasons needed to keep a human hand on the trigger.

Other examples of incidents involving AI/computers in fiction include:

In no way is that a complete list, but they are good examples of incidents that could lead a society to not trusting AIs. Also, I would add that a healthy fear of AIs would be very "human".

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    $\begingroup$ In BSG, they avoided all automation, not just full AIs. You need a very strong level of distrust to end up with humans actually moving the guns and pulling the trigger, rather than just designating targets for an aiming system and pressing an authorization-to-fire button that lets the computer fire when it has a firing solution. @SRM makes a good point that true AI goes way beyond just an aiming system. $\endgroup$ – Peter Cordes Dec 17 '16 at 4:53
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    $\begingroup$ Add Dune to that list. Dune built an entire religion to stop AI's, and did a beautiful job of making it seamless. $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Dec 17 '16 at 15:39
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What if the AI gunners can be hacked, disabling the guns in their control till they can be re-calibrated? The potential to waste valuable time during a space battle would be incentive to use more Human gunners.

The servers required to run the AI gunners could take up large amounts of space/resources on the ship, enabling less room for guns/shields/engines(for manoeuvrability) and if the Computers are solar-powered, then in darker corners of space, the AI might not have enough energy for extended battle periods.

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What about humans controlling computer-aimed guns? Humans have many advantages; in particular with regards to restraint and rules of engagement. Humans are also very important on large machines, as they have roles in maintenance and damage control - it stands to reason that the human gunners would also have roles in maintaining, loading and repairing the weapons as required.

The most likely one to be replaced is the pilot - in a small, short range machine that requires manoeuvrability then removing the pilot can be very useful (and the servicing, reloading etc can be carried out on the mothership.

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The obvious solution is to have something in between. The AI automatically mans the guns, working as best it can, but there is a human sitting there (probably the commander or navigator, in that order of likelihood if the ship is too small to have dedicated gunners, you should really not have the pilot man anything except for maybe one gun mounted to point straight ahead with no pivot, and even only that if you are waiving realistic space battles for more Star Wars-esque battles) ready to take over if there is something that the AI can't respond to or if the AI is not working optimally.

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Why not a social constraint?

If interstellar war is commonplace then there is likely to be some form of 'gentlemanly agreement' about not dropping nuclear rocks upon the heads of your enemies.

"It's bad for business, dont'cha know."

and a lot of 'well placed' aggression.

"So they want this system do they? Well, lets have at them then, the cads! Fire everything!"

and also a strong urge amongst those who live in space to not leave other spacers stranded.

"Their ship can't fire back and they've surrendered Sir." "Get emergency air and engineering crews over there on the double, Rutherford!"

Add that up and you can end up with a strong sense of honour amongst the interstellar naval personnel.

"If it were me on that stricken ship, Sir, I'd rather a torpedo down my throat and an honourable death."

When you consider the mindset of people in that situation it's not unreasonable to assume that naval commanders would see AI's as 'unsporting' and the enlisted crewmen would see using AI weaponry as somehow cowardly or lacking. If interstellar warfare were suitably codified and regulated (in order to avoid the kind of all out warfare that wasted the resources of the once great Terran Federation) then AI gunnery could even be banned under the rules of honourable combat, reserved for only the worst of the brigands and thieves. In that kind of situation the only people with AI systems tied into their gunnery can be considered pirates.

"And they deserve their treatment at the hands of Her Immortal Majesties Imperial Navy, the abominable blaggards!"

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  • $\begingroup$ "Why not a social constraint?" Because it doesn't apply to zealots. If for some reason there's a faction of humans whose mindset is "all heathens must die", they won't care about societal/diplomatic standards. Also, factions like SetDef from Infinite Warfare could pop up. I want using human gunners to be an unbreakable need that directly ties to the military. Also, "using AI weaponry would be cowardly or lacking": hence my constraint in the question that my humans are "reasonable" and don't let semantics sway their decision. $\endgroup$ – Drew Dec 20 '16 at 17:39
  • $\begingroup$ @Drew: Your protagonists personal views on honour aren't a matter of semantics, but I can see your point. On the other hand if the zealots break the rules and Every. Other. Faction. turns on them then their mild advantage in using AI guns will be wiped out by sheer economic advantage. If you're insistent on it being a need rather than a preference I'd suggest making that clear in an addendum to your question. $\endgroup$ – Joe Bloggs Dec 20 '16 at 20:24
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Overpowered EMPs might be so easy to generate and target that the only way for any complex computer to survive in combat is to lock down before the first enemy comes within range. I'm imagining a scenario like the EMP from The Matrix but able to fire repeatedly leaving the two sides to slug it out in low tech.

Since you couldn't predict when an enemy might generate a pulse, you'd have to turn off all electricity supplying advanced circuitry and physically grounding hundreds of points on ever circuit board so no runs are long enough to induct a charge.

Combat would be down to humans and extremely simple electronics.

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A lot of really great input has turned up. While none provide a setting I'd like to use on their own, together they get pretty interesting. Most notably among that input is:

Humans have roles in maintaining, loading, and repairing weapons

While humans have automated something as menial as loading ammunition into turrets by now, maintaining and repairing weapons is a physical job, and a bodyless AI can't replace humans in this regard. There needs to be a large number of humans on the ship -- not just to repair/service the weapons, but to maintain such huge capital ships in their entirety.

Humans are great when you have to improvise

Yet another reason that a large number of humans are needed on the ship is Murphy's Law. Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong, and bodyless systems that aren't adaptable to other purposes will likely not be adequate for this purpose.

What does that sum up to?

Now, despite all these humans on board with plenty of purposes they need to fulfill, there will likely be downtime where not all of them are needed. It would be inefficient to have them lounging around, especially during battle.

With that in mind, we also look at skill. Is it time-efficient or resource-effective to train every single member of the military with every single skill they could possibly need in basic training? Of course not! Not everyone can land the position they want in the military, so they have to work up to it. What better way to do that than making a name for yourself as a turret gunner? Being a gunner could also be like a maiden battle of sorts, where the gunner learns to kill enemies within the relative safety of the capital ship.

With this in mind, there is no downside to using AI gunners (as per one of the requirements in the question), but there is strong incentive for human gunners as it gives them something to do in battle so they're not lounging around, being an untapped resource, so that crewman can progress their military career, and so that new recruits can be bloodied with relative safety.

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