Linux, politics, and other interesting things
One of the many interesting ideas in Peter F. Hamilton’s Night’s Dawn series  is that of Combat Wasps. These are robots used in space combat which may be armed with some combination of projectile weapons, MASERs, thermo-nuclear and anti-matter weapons.
In a lot of science fiction the space combat is limited to capital ships, a large source of this problem is technological issues such as the Star Trek process of making models of ships – it’s too expensive and time consuming to make lots of small models. Shows such as Babylon 5  have fighters which make more sense. Sustaining life in space is difficult at the best of times and it seems likely for battles in space to have few if any survivors. So sending out fighters allows the capital ships to have a chance to survive. I suspect that a major motivating factor in the space battles in Babylon 5 was making it fit on a TV screen. Dramatic TV portrayal of small groups of fighters engaging in a battle is an art that has been perfected over the course of 80+ years. It’s about individuals being shown, whether it’s riders on horseback, pilots of biplanes, or space pilots, it’s much the same.
But a reasonable analysis of the facts suggests that without some strange religious motive adopted by all parties in a war (as used in Dune ) the trend in warfare is to ever greater mechanisation.
So while a medium size starship might be able to carry dozens or even hundreds of fighter craft, if using small robotic craft then thousands of fighters could be carried.
So the issue is how to effectively use such robots. It seems likely that an effective strategy would involve large numbers of robots performing different tasks, some would detonate thermo-nuclear weapons to remove enemies from an area while others would prepare to advance into the breach. The result would be a battle lasting seconds that involves large numbers of robots (too many to focus on in a group) while each robot matters to little that there’s no interest in following one. Therefore it just wouldn’t work on TV and in a book it’s given a couple of sentences to describe what would have been an epic battle if humans had done anything other than press the launch buttons.
One of the many things I would do if I had a lot more spare time would be to write a Combat Wasp simulator. There are already quite a number of computer games based on the idea of writing a program to control a robot and then having the robots do battle. This would be another variation on the theme but based in space.
In a comment on my previous post about programming and games for children , Don Marti suggests that a RTS game could allow programming the units. It seems to me that the current common settings for controlling units in RTS games (attack particular enemies, attach whichever enemies get in range, patrol, move to location, retreat, and defend other units or strategic positions) are about as complex as you can get without getting to the full programming language stage. Then of course if you have any real programming language for a unit then changing it takes more time than an RTS game allows, and if the programming is good then there won’t be much for a human to do during the game anyway. So I can’t imagine much potential for anything between RTS and fully programmed games.
There is some interesting research being conducted by the US military in simulating large numbers of people in combat situations. I think that the techniques in question could be more productively used in determining which of the various science fiction ideas for space combat could be most effectively implemented.