Inspiring Book: Day of the Cheetah
I read Day of the Cheetah by Dale Brown at just the right time: technologically a lot of what is in the book was (and still is) possible, and the world around me was starting to embrace new technologies (I read this right before the internet got going). I was also a huge aviation fan and playing a lot of flight simulator games.
I love love love love this book.
The US Air Force as a part of of its research and development of next generation aircraft produces a fighter jet that combines a lot of cutting edge technologies. The crown jewel is its thought controlled interface. That’s right, a pilot flies the plane and takes in all of the sensor information via a neural interface.
When the plane is stolen from Area 51 (side note: this book was the first time I had heard of the place!), a group of pilots and scientists race to capture or destroy the plane using another advanced prototype called the Cheetah. It is basically an advanced F-15 with an incredibly good aircrew vs. an extremely advanced blend of man and machine.
What is awesome about this book
As I mentioned, I read this book at the right time. In school I was really into electronics and aviation. Computers and the internet were really gathering momentum. This book just screamed out my name.
The technology in the book seemed so accessible to me as I read it. Things were based in near-science instead of just made up BS. In fact, a lot of the things in the book (vectored thrust for example) and now somewhat commonplace in aviation.
The idea of a man-machine interface at this level was mind blowing to me. The description of how the pilots were able to use a fusion of sensor data like seeing the radar sweeps in a “visual” way was breathtaking for me.
Around this time I was reading a fair number of Tom Clancy books, and this was the first techno-thriller I read that wasn’t by him. It really opened my eyes up to the possibility of other writers and ideas. I went back and read the predecessor to this book (Flight of the Old Dog) and loved it too.
Sadly, much like Tom Clancy’s novels the later books from Dale Brown just didn’t resonate with me as strongly, so I stopped reading them.
The final showdown in the book also highlights that as “perfect” as a computer might seem, a human’s ability to think creatively will usually be a computer’s undoing. This is something that I have personally witnessed many times over the years, usually when someone puts an unexpected input into one of programs…
What captures my imagination
A lot of what was in the book seemed very plausible to me in the mid 1990’s. I think the fact that several things have come to pass is proof that this book was an example of things to come, as opposed to wild speculation.
There were really two things in the book that captured my imagination and have stuck with me through the years. The first is the general technological theme of the book: we can refine our current technology and produce something really incredible.
Side note: I will say that today it would be cool to have a human-computer interface like this, but I’m unsure if the pilot should be in the plane. It seems like the plane would be even more lethal if the pilot could be remote, like a drone pilot. Of course, if it was fully automated that would be even more awesome, but would take a lot away from the book’s thriller/chase feel.
The other thing was that the Soviets were willing to play such a long-ball game. The agent they planted was sooo deep undercover that no one knew or suspected anything. And when he was put there the Soviets had no idea that he would wind up in the cockpit of such an advanced aircraft. Their willingness to a) play chess like this and b) make an investment with such an uncertain payoff was really revolutionary to me.
I have tried to think as far ahead in real life as these fictional characters did, but have found it very challenging. It took me a long time to realize that a lot of the successful people I’ve encountered are successful because they have made these types of strategic moves.
What I’m taking away from this book
- It is possible to make something that is truly advanced from everything around it (Don’t be limited by the here and now!)
- Sometimes you need to make a move and be ok with it not paying off for a while
- A small group of people using sound science and engineering principals can make a huge breakthrough (hello SpaceX!)
- The human element should never be discounted: machines might be faster or more accurate, but they will probably never be as good as a combination of humans and machine working together. Too much faith in either one will lead to disappointment.