Every Friday we discuss how neuroscience is portrayed in fiction. This week we’ll be discussing Daniel Suarez’s new book, Kill Decision. It’s the story of what would happen if evil entities high up within the military industrial complex developed autonomous unmanned war machines and imbued them with a simple algorithm: behave like a weaver ant.

It’s a fantastic premise that thoroughly imagines just how fearsome a swarm of inexpensive, simple-minded, toy-like helicopters would be if they were armed and given the territorial sensibilities of the most warlike animal on the planet. The plot orbits around the idea that the evil industrialists, having now invented and perfected the new wave in warfare, must first create a market, which is accomplished by using more traditional (but still autonomous) unmanned aircraft to attack civilian targets around the globe and in the US. They plant false clues to incense nations that are already unfriendly with each other, which lead them all to demand their own autonomous air forces. Autonomy is key here because current unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology requires a human in the loop to make final decisions about what kill, but radio communications can be blocked, meaning that it is inevitable that machines much be given the ability to make their own decisions about targets if unmanned warfare is to continue to evolve.

Weaver ants are modeled as the basis for the autonomous warfighter’s mind because that’s basically what individual weaver ants are. And their success as species having a total worldwide biomass equivalent to humans proves that the algorithm describing their behavior is a winner. I’ll leave you to read the book for more neuroscience details.

The book reads like a Michael Crichton thriller, and along with Suarez’s other outstanding thrillers Daemon and FreedomTM, Kill Decision places Suarez in position to pick up the mantle of the late Crichton. In fact, as a true expert in the systems he writes about (Suarez is a computer engineer), Suarez brings an unmatched sense of realism and immediacy to his stories.

A terrific, exciting, and chilling read.

–Stephen Macknik