Some thoughts on the future of warfare and global conflict.
This post is relatively colloquial, more a collection of thoughts than a coherent narrative. I’ve linked to content on a lot of the key points, I’d ask you send the links to background tabs as you go and make it through the whole post, but it’s up to you. Feel free to engage with me about these topics on Twitter or send me an email.
Have you ever played a real time strategy game? If you have I'd like to give you some stars because you could be a future general…
Autonomous robotics are coming, while the UN hems and haws trying to ban the ultimate pinnacle of military technology, the nation states of Earth are busy paying companies around the globe to build them robotics with varying degrees of autonomy. Let’s be clear, I am not advocating for killer robots, it’s just that I seek to be realistic in assessing the world. No one will stop doing this; we are locked in an arms race. Anyone who doesn’t build autonomous military robots will be severely behind (Russia, I’m looking at you).
I see the massive and lightning-fast adoption of remotely piloted aircraft (drones) as a direct reflection of the demands of modern conflict. Modern developed militaries, particularly the US, need to be omnipresent in order to deal with an enemy that conceals itself, and the drone has delivered. They are the ultimate response to terrorism.
Currently they are piloted, but this will change. No human can be omnipresent, always ready to find and counter threats, yet that is the demand of fighting terrorism. Only the machines can be so vigilant. When there are humans in the loop their psyches become tired, and they even suffer PTSD. Our limits of attention are finite, but the machines' attention is eternal. So we seek to develop systems that can act on their own; we tell them where to patrol and they keep that area free of enemies.
Of course we will be “on the loop,” computer vision is still quite stupid. But the stresses on human operators could be greatly reduced if the machine alerted only when something deserved a closer look; and listened for what to do when it came time to act. "Go over there and destroy that target.” Some psychologists even theorize that the humans left on the loop will feel better in this setup, they may be able to shunt blame off to the machine.
Autonomous robotics are coming, they are the ultimate realization of the trajectory of warfare since the advent of the spear: to inflict damage without risk. As Moore’s law marches on, we are entering into an era when it is finally possible to build an autonomous machine capable of weighing options and executing them on its own. The desire for these systems was always there, but now the technology is too.
Now traditionally, authors go into “Terminator” references here and start getting cheeky about robot uprisings. I don’t really fear the robots acting on their own (yet) I fear people acting without accountability.
Already I am concerned that remotely piloted drones are seductive, they make engaging in conflict too easy for democratic officials to engage in. With drones US leaders have discovered the formula for engaging in eternal conflict that works extremely well for United States society, one that lets us engage in eternal combat without risking the political fallout of bodybags coming home. The costs are entirely one sided; the enemy absorbs all the death. As a result 56% of Americans support drone strikes, although to our credit US citizens are concerned about civilian casualties. I’m glad to see that, I hope we can keep the pressure on and demand more transparency, but I won’t hold my breath.
Traditional drones are placing massive strains on the principle of proportionality in Just War theory, and I see autonomous robotics straining it even further, perhaps even to a breaking point. At least the Office of Naval Research is seeking to give autonomous robots a moral framework. So much for Asimov’s laws though, we’ll likely be breaking the first one quite soon: “A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.”
I am concerned that autonomous systems will temp officials even more. Dealing death will become easy and cheap beyond the wildest dreams of today. Autonomous systems give an illusion of cost-free war, because they are cost free for one side. Cost referring to human life, as money is no object when the topic is war. With fewer humans left in the loop the potential for abuse of power goes up, it just does.
It will be up to us the citizens to demand our leaders do not abuse their power to wage robotic warfare, this of course being a herculean feat given how intent they are to keep secrets from us. As more and more military systems become autonomous, the potential for secrecy grows; now the details about strikes can be kept very high up the chain of command. “Go there and destroy things based on these parameters” and the drone can execute. The chain of command could be shortened considerably, although there will likely be support staff; but how much will they know and how much of the actual machine’s mission will be secret?
Beyond Nation-States: A great time to be a would-be super villain
In the new age, money can buy an army directly. This excellent article by Noah Smith has proposed that the age of the gun may be over, and I largely agree with his assessment, and share his fears. It’s a hell of a time to be a would-be super villain sitting on a mountain of cash…
Just as it is in the broader civilian labor market, the career path of “soldier” is under threat from automation. The appeals of automation are universal across all sectors. Predictable, upfront costs buy you the labor you need with minimal down the line cost. Like so many other previously human endeavors on Earth, we are outsourcing warfare to our automations.
Imagine two technological powers going to "war" in the future.
Already power dynamics between nation states in the global system revolve primarily around economics, sanctions and the like.
Future warfare is shaping up to be the perfect distillation of capitalism. With autonomous robotics, you buy your soldiers directly and upfront. Warfare becomes whoever has the most money, in a more direct way than it ever has before. Sophisticated robots hunting and destroying each other, the most expensive video game ever played. A future "war" would amount to money blowing itself up directly. It would be comical if it weren’t so tragic. Let’s hope it stays relegated to machines killing machines...
But of course such a farce will likely never happen, at least not on a grand scale…hopefully. Large-scale land, air and sea combat is far too clunky an affair for the modern day, the global system is too tightly knit for anyone to engage in such a monstrosity offensively. Instead everyone will increasingly turn to assassinations, special operations, black ops and of course cyber incursions. We will likely see (well, those with clearance will see) remotely piloted and autonomous robots from various nations battling each other in limited skirmishes. Maybe even NGOs will get into the fray…
A troublesome foreign leader dies over here, an inflammatory mullah dies over there, an expat on the run carrying troves of government secrets collapses in the shower. Each scene might have something in common: something small landed on them and “bit” them. Maybe it’s a bee-sized robot, maybe it’s an actual bee that’s been given the cyborg treatment. With the continual advances in synthetic biology, I would not be surprised if eventually we forgo electronics entirely and create new forms of life capable of dealing death. If that sounds ridiculously dangerous, remember the motto of humanity, “if something can be done, we must do it!” Think of all the other madness we’ve unleashed on ourselves and the world.
Beyond robotics, there’s even the growing field of custom viruses targeted specifically at an individual’s DNA. Assassination will be a flourishing art in the near future.
Walking back from slick futuristic assassinations, as drones become a commodity item we will see them used in terrorism.
It’s only a matter of time before someone straps some explosives and ball bearings to a quad copter and flies it into a crowd. There is no real defense against such a scenario, it could happen tomorrow.
Ok, winding this down now. I have a story to tell you about a potential future for ground robotics, but let’s save that for another time…
There is a grand wave of exponential change sweeping our world, across everything that we do, warfare included. Now that the tools of war are being enveloped in digital computing, they are gaining the exponential characteristics of that technology. The world we are entering into is one where individuals are increasingly empowered to kill one another with ever more precise means at ever-decreasing costs. It will be quite a feat keeping a semblance of global peace with the ever-growing numbers of empowered actors. I hope that we don’t fall prey to the seductive potential of autonomous death, but I think unfortunately we will have to learn the lesson for ourselves first hand, as we usually do. Pandora’s box is already opened, now we have to figure out how to live in a world where madness has been unleashed. So far we’ve been doing pretty well, what with biological and nuclear weapons, but the future tools of warfare are more precise, much more seductive in their “accuracy.” This will be a challenging future to say the least…