Gods, Monsters and the Lucky Peach (2018): Drones are a Time-Traveler’s Best Friend
Recommendation: Read Gods, Monsters and the Lucky Peach for the excellent ideas, great story, and compelling characters but pay attention to the drones too.
Kelly Robson’s Nebula and Hugo best novella nominee, Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach is a surprising take on time-travel: What if you went back in time not to study history (like in Connie Willis’ The Doomsday Book and her short stories) but went back to understand a river ecology so you could restore it, post-climate change collapse? And suppose you went back to Mesopotamia to study the Tigris and Euphrates- would the locals think of you as a god or a monster? And from a robotics point of view, if you did go back in time, what if you brought along a few satellites and lots and lots of small drones?
Robson builds and weaves together two very different worlds- a near-future world and a past world, each interesting, consistent, and surprising. The future world is rich with technology, much of which is being used to terraform the Earth after the ecology collapsed. Minh wins a contract to go back in time to spend three weeks studying Mesopotamia. She wins the contract by cleverly minimizing the number of scientists and amount of equipment that she will bring. One of her team’s key tools that allow her to reduce the team footprint are drones. One set are called “camera drones” and another called “wasps” that collect samples, plus there are weaponized security drones that the health and safety officer. The past world is rich with culture and political maneuvering between the priesthood, which is exploiting unexplained phenomena from the gods to gain the upper hand over the monarchy, and the king who is expected to defend the realm against monsters.
The use of drones is realistic for at least four reasons. One is that they are included in the team’s gear. Drones, or small unmanned aerial systems (sUAS), are becoming common in public safety, insurance, construction, movie-making, and any other application where a bird’s eye or hover-and-stare view would be helpful. For $1,000, you already can go to amazon.com and buy a drone that carries high resolution 4K cameras, avoids obstacles, and has software to map an area including elevation down to 4cm. There’s no reason to believe that we won’t have more drones in the future.
A second realistic aspect of the drone is their specialization, or what roboticists call heterogeneity. The camera drones zoom around providing camera views but do not touch anything. However, the wasp drones are built to physically interact with the environment in order to take samples of mud and collect insects. In real-life, engineers take a similar design approach; they design and build platforms for specific applications. The post office uses a specialized mail truck with the steering wheel on the right side to make deliveries to mailboxes more efficient, but it uses standard 18-wheelers for hauling the mail between cities. Likewise, the design of package delivery drones looks very different than for aerial photography. Form follows function!
Another touch of realism is that the control of the drones in Gods, Monsters and the Lucky Peach is advanced but plausible. The novella does not describe the user interface that enables the team to specify what it wants the robot to do, though it is implied it is through natural language commands or some sort of spatial mark-up system. In either type of interface, the possible actions and tasks for the drones have to be sufficiently abstract so that a person can quickly and easily specify a task- similar to how Ryan Gosling directed his surveillance drone in Blade Runner 2049 with a few words and gestures. In the novella, we see the team tasking the camera drones to sweep an area, track a person (or a horse- one of the characters loves horses), or fall into a formation, such as a forming a circle around an area or person of interest. It is believable, indeed it has to be true, that it is this easy to task drones, otherwise drones won’t be adopted by users.
But the most realistic aspect of the drones is their bounded rationality: drones can’t do what they aren’t programmed to do. In a pivotal scene, Minh tries to use the camera drones as weapons, but the camera drones are built with obstacle avoidance. They can fly really fast at a person and get really close, but they can’t hit them. There is no way to disable the function, which makes sense if you are giving drones to a general user- designers would bound the capabilities so the user wouldn’t hurt themselves or crash the drone. Minh doesn’t have time to suddenly transform from a geologist into a computer programmer in some sort of deus ex hacker twist. It is a delight to see the drones stay within bounds of what they are programmed for.
A small quibble, the drones seem to have infinite power and the ability to self-store and maintain themselves. Usually robots require some sort of care and feeding- there’s no such thing as a free lunch and we all have to put up our tools, but, on the other hand, it is the future!
My recommendation is to definitely read the novella- it made both the Nebula and Hugo nominee lists for a reason! Some people have complained that it starts out slow- I didn’t think so, but if you do- hang in there, because it is the set up for a Very Big payoff.
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