Hideo Kojima has a pretty great record when it comes to predictions. In Metal Gear Solid 2, he foresaw the downsides of the information economy; In Death Stranding, he tapped into contemporary social isolation just before the pandemic hit and changed everything. But I never thought I’d see the day when soldiers outsmart a military AI by creeping around under a cardboard box.
The humble cardboard box is an ever-present item in the Metal Gear series, and depending on the entry has a range of functionalities. The most basic is that Snake or whoever turns the box upside-down and puts it over them then waddles around with the box on. It’s a remarkably effective disguise—unless you put it right in a soldier’s path or move while they’re watching you—and turns out Snake wasn’t the only military mind to think of it.
The Economist’s defense editor Shashank Joshi recently posted an excerpt from a new book about AI in the military, Four Battlegrounds by Paul Scharre (spotted by Kotaku (opens in new tab)). In it, there’s a story about how the military was using marines to improve its AI detection systems. Initially, they just had to mooch around it while the machine gathered data used to improve it: Then the script got flipped.
The AI machine (I’m trying hard not to call it a bipedal nuclear-equipped battle tank) was placed in the middle of a traffic circle, and eight marines all had the same challenge: Whoever could get to it without being detected would win.
“Eight marines: not a single one got detected,” Phil said. They defeated the AI system not with traditional camouflage but with clever tricks that were outside of the AI system’s testing regime. “Two somersaulted for 300 meters; never got detected. Two hid under a cardboard box. You could hear them giggling the whole time.” Like Bugs Bunny in a Looney Tunes cartoon, sneaking up on Elmer Fudd in a cardboard box. “One guy, my favourite,” Phil said, “he field-stripped a fir tree and walked like a fir tree. You can see his smile, and that’s about all you see.” The AI system had been trained to detect humans walking, not humans somersaulting, hiding in a cardboard box, or disguised as a tree.”
These aren’t the marines you’re looking for. pic.twitter.com/qMwzJblQwpJanuary 18, 2023
Like Bugs Bunny or like the 21st century’s greatest soldier? Funnily enough, this is one of the themes Kojima regularly returns to around the cardboard box: Typically, a character will grumble about having something so useless, and another will point out that its usefulness is determined by your imagination. Another nice coincidence: MGS Peace Walker introduced the ‘Love Box’, a cardboard box big enough for two soldiers to use at once. Now all we need is the walking nuclear mechs and… actually, let’s just leave them in the game.