Title Posted
Hyper transits Apr 2009
Hyper translation Apr 2009
The Fourth Empire's missing ships Apr 2009
Status of the Grand Alliance as of the start of <em>In Death Ground</em> Apr 2009
How do you pronounce 'Dahak'? Apr 2009
Why does towing pods decrease ship acceleration? Apr 2009
Firing through a drive band Apr 2009
Naval blockades Apr 2009
The rationale for the Theisman Buildup Apr 2009
Aftermath of the Terran Civil War Apr 2009


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Pearls of Weber

A collection of posts by David Weber containing background information for his stories, collected and generously made available Joe Buckley.

PICAs and military manpower needs

  • Series: Safehold
  • Date: May 22, 2009

Somebody (who shall remain nameless) mentioned to me in a telephone conversation the other day (after finishing a readthrough of the manuscript of By Schism Rent Asunder) that the Terrans must've been pretty stupid not to use PICAs to crew their warships, since it would've provided such a hugely powerful force multiplier. I promise you, they weren't stupid.

There are several things about PICAs and the way the Terran Federation managed not only its active military, but also its research and development and R&D establishments, which haven't been discussed in the books because there hasn't been a good place to discuss them yet. I have a scene in the third book -- By Heresies Distressed -- where some of this is brought into the foreground, but I'm not certain I'm going to leave it in. In a lot of ways, it's really something that ought to come up much later in the discussion of technology on Safehold with Safeholdians who are beginning to rediscover it, and I'm not totally satisfied with the "book" upon which I've currently hung it.

For the edification of the Barflies, however, and given my nameless friend's comments [the noive of dis guy, complainin' after I went an' let 'im read the whole book!], I thought I might clarify a few points.

First, according to Old Nameless, there's been some comment that using PICAs would have provided oodles of more trained crewmen for the Terran Federation Navy. However, the Navy's problem was never really lack of manpower; it was lack of warships. I'll discuss this further below, but the warships fighting the Gbaba were scarcely manpower intensive, for a lot of reasons. The Federation never had a problem coming up with the personnel they did require, but even with fully automated production, there was a limit to the number of ships they could physically build while simultaneously maintaining their massive fixed defenses, ammunition expenditures, depleted reconnaissance platforms, and everything else needed to support the defense of an entire star system against a massive, continuous attack which went on literally day-in-and-day-out year, after year, after year.

Second, there seems to be an impression that all PICAs were created equal and that all PICAs were intended primarily as toys for the "rich and famous." The majority of PICAs were, in fact, produced primarily as extremely advanced prosthetic devices for those with serious physical disability (or for "industrial uses," as discussed in one of the paragraphs below). They were intended to provide mobility and the ability to interact with the rest of human society as a fully mobile, physically functional person for individuals who would otherwise have been confined to wheelchairs or the equivalent, and that's the main reason that the ability to duplicate human physiological responses was developed for them in the first place. Once the capabilities were developed, frankly, it didn't cost a lot more to build a full-capability PICA than it would have cost to build one which lacked those capabilities.

Now, having said that, it's entirely true that Nimue's PICA, as has been stated in several places in the books, is a last-generation PICA. It's a last-generation model for several reasons. One is that as the war situation worsened and resource priorities and research priorities shifted, no later generations of PICA were developed (after all, the one they already had was pretty darned good, I think). And, I might also add, it's been specifically stated in the books that Nimue's father was almost obscenely wealthy. In other words (and one of the reasons why Nimue so seldom used the thing) he used his wealth and his influence to procure it for his beloved daughter -- who most certainly did not suffer from any severe physical disability -- when it had become increasingly difficult to do so. (And, by the way, the reason she was the only one on Commodore Pei's staff who had one was that -- for what I think are probably perfectly logical reasons -- there was no one on his staff who required a PICA for health reasons. Given the fact that the "toy" version had become so much rarer and harder to obtain, it's not too surprising, I think, that no one else had one.) And, of course, if her dad was going to bend/break the rules to get it for her in the first place, he got her the model with all the bells and whistles. He didn't actually break any laws to do this, and it's not as if the PICA in question came off a black-market somewhere. If that had, Nimue it would have refused his "gift" flat out. Instead, this was more an example of perfectly legal if somewhat tasteless conspicuous consumption by someone who had almost unlimited economic resources and understood that someday soon there would literally be no tomorrow.

Non-"toy"/non-prosthetic PICAs were still being manufactured to the very end, although most of them were more "utility models," one might say. They were routinely used by tech workers who needed to operate in highly hazardous environments, for example. Instead of putting on a hazmat suit, the individual who would otherwise have needed one simply strapped on his workplace PICA for the day. Again, if there were someone who needed brute strength, or who was going to work on a space station, exposed to hard vacuum and radiation, he did so by PICA, and "took off his working clothes" at the end of his shift. There was, however, less need for this type of situation for reasons touched on in the point below.

Third, PICAs weren't used aboard warships for the same reason that these people didn't simply use PICAs to effectively "clone" their best scientists. They didn't need to. While Owl is not exactly the most brilliant crayon in the box as AIs go, please note that Nimue has reflected many times to the course of the first book (and, believe me, Merlin goes on reflecting on the same thing throughout the second book, as well), that his programming is heuristic and he is supposed to learn and become more capable and responsive as time goes on. Fully developed AIs, intended from the beginning to handle complex operations, were common, powerful, and highly advanced by Nimue's time. Owl just doesn't happen to be one of them, which is the very reason that Merlin -- who, as Nimue, was quite accustomed to working with those highly capable AIs -- gets so frustrated with Owl from time to time.

Terran warships from the time of the Gbaba War were automated to a degree which would have made the Royal Manticoran Navy green with envy. They did have command crew, and they did have human personnel aboard to keep an eye on the AIs, to provide redundancy, and to keep human decisionmaking fully in the loop. For the most part, however, the ships were run and the human command crew's orders were executed not by flesh and blood humans directly interfacing with the hardware by punching buttons, but rather by computers taking direction from the human command crew and then executing the tasks they were given far better -- and far more swiftly -- than any flesh-and-blood could have. That's one of the things I meant when I said that manpower was never the limiting factor on the Federation's ability to fight the Gbaba. The differences in weapons technology and the sheer numbers of ships the Gbaba could bring to the party were the real killers for humanity in this war. That same massive use of cybernetics could also be found in the highly automated production of new warships and weapons, which is the only way that single star systems were able to stand off armadas of the size and combat power of Gbaba fleets more than very, very briefly.

On a slightly divergent tangent, I'm surprised that no one has mentioned -- to me, at least -- the potential advantages in producing two or three dozen of your top physicist by "cloning" him into PICAs and setting each of those PICAs to work, either jointly or on entirely different tasks. The reason that they didn't do that (and they didn't) was two-fold. One was the social, legal, and moral prohibition against open-ended autonomous mode operation of PICAs. Part of that prohibition stemmed from what Asimov so aptly turned the "Frankenstein effect," and part of its stemmed from completely legitimate concerns about accountability, identity, and a host of other factors. But, frankly, given the backs-to-the-wall situation in which humanity found itself before Operation Ark, all of those prohibitions would have disappeared in a skinny minute if overturning them would have helped the war effort. It didn't have any real implications for providing desperately needed trained manpower, however, for reasons I've touched on above. And it didn't have any real implications where the need for "cloned" scientists and researchers were concerned because they didn't need PICAs to produce the same effect. The ability to store personalities, knowledge, and feelings has nothing to do with the physically mobile body in which a PICA's mollycirc brain happens to be mounted. The exact same technology could be -- and was -- used to produce multiple electronic copies of scientists, strategists, planners, etc., who then interacted with one another -- and with the world around them -- through virtual reality and computer interfaces. The "clones" were there all along; they were simply electronic clones who operated and existed very much like Annie McCaffrey's "shell people" rather than walking around in dozens of identical PICAs.

In many ways, the provision of a PICA to each of the "electronic clones" would actually have been something of a distraction. What the researchers, strategists, and planners needed was the ability to network with one another, to share projects and time, and to pursue individual lines of research or thought. They could do all of that through their electronic interface, and do it without the "distractions" of a physical body. Think about it. Where research or any other fundamentally intellectual/mental process is concerned, the human body is more often a limiting factor than an enabling factor. Fatigue, the need for food, waste elimination, hygiene, exercise, sleep -- all of those distract, so why provide a physical body when it's possible to provide an entire virtual universe for each of your electronic clones when he or she needs a break from concentrated effort?

The real problem with getting this information across to the reader, in a lot of ways, is that the entire focus of the series, for me, is Nimue/Merlin, Safehold, and the dimensions of the problems and issues with which Nimue/Merlin and people like Cayleb, Maikel Staynair, and others must cope. So I moved very quickly through the process of setting up the backstory, as it were, for Safehold, rather than spending an entire book establishing the parameters and "flavor" of the doomed high-tech society which launched Operation Ark. That means that there are enormous aspects of that society (which exist in my brain and in my notes) that haven't found their ways into the books yet. Many of them probably never will; others will be touched upon when something happening on Safehold offers the proper "hook." So far, the need/opportunity to address these points in the novels simply hasn't arisen, and I prefer not to force a "hook" just so I can tell the reader "Geewhiz, look how clever I was when I said all this up!"

Mind you, I was very clever [he said modestly], but that's another story.