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What If Our Technology Turns Against Us?

What If Our Technology Turns Against Us?

Monday, 7 February, 2022 - 05:15

How to respond to climate change is often postulated as the central question of our time, and while that’s undeniably important, I have another nomination: How will we stop our new and often splendid technologies from being weaponized against us?

I use the term weaponization quite literally — drone attacks, cyberattacks, hostile uses of artificial intelligence, and attacks from space, bioweapons and more. It’s good that the world is emerging from a period of technological stagnation, but therein lies a danger: It is a general principle of world history that new technologies, even the most beneficial ones, are eventually used either as weapons themselves or as instruments of warfare. That was true of the horse, the railroad, the airplane and, of course, nuclear power. It likely will be true for these new developments, too.

Drone and cyberattacks are already significant forces in many parts of the world, most of all in the Middle East and surrounding regions, and they are proving effective. It’s a pretty safe prediction that they will spread to more parts of the world and be used with greater frequency. Many Americans today view cyberattacks as mostly a commercial or bureaucratic nuisance, but such tools have the potential to shut down significant parts of the economy or neutralize some military assets.

Hostile AI, attacks from space and bioweapons may be further off. But at least some of those technologies could become major strategic factors within a few decades.

Most current ideologies are unprepared for this coming new world. These problems do not have obvious solutions, nor do they offer any obvious way to confer political advantage. The US hasn’t even made much progress on preparing for the next pandemic, and that is with more than 2,500 Americans dying a day from Covid-19.

Standard “hawkish” foreign policy views call for spending more on national defense. Whether or not you agree, those ideologies do not necessarily address the right questions. Procurement cycles can run a decade or more, but the relevant technologies are advancing every year. Furthermore, the US military finds it increasingly hard for bid for top talent, given the high pay available in the technology sector.

Most of the ideologies of Europe, especially in Germany, simply assume these problems will never arrive on their shores. A possible war between Russia and Ukraine could serve as a rude awakening.

China, by contrast, does have an ideology to address these issues — the ideology of surveillance. It remains to be seen whether these tools, practiced on their own population as well as abroad, will make China more stable or lead to internecine struggles for political power. In any case, the goal should be to protect against these autocratic ideologies, not embrace.

The US is the only other country practicing comparable levels of surveillance, though more on other countries than on its own population. For America it is less of an ideology than a surreptitious practice that pretends to stand apart from the rest of the main American ideologies (which, in fairness, have their imperialist aspects). No matter what your view of Edward Snowden, he has ceased to be a major public figure or to occasion much mainstream debate. America may just have to wait until something truly disastrous happens before it addresses issues of weaponization and surveillance.

There are ideologies that address parts of the weaponization problem. Effective Altruist circles, especially those that focus on the dangers of artificial general intelligence (AGI), are afraid that super-smart AI will develop a mind of its own and impose its will on us, or otherwise engage in evil activities.

That may be a valid concern, but my fears are more general. If AGI is so powerful, than it stands to reason that intermediate products could, in conjunction with human efforts, cause a lot of military conflict. The problem isn’t necessarily Skynet going live. It’s that 40% of Skynet will be plenty dangerous.

The Luddites also have an ideology, namely that the development of new technologies should be stopped altogether. One could debate the benefit-cost ratio of that decision, but suffice to say that China, Russia, and many other rival nations have no such plans, and the US has no real choice other than to try to stay ahead of them.

It’s not an especially hopeful vision of the future, but there it is. On what might be the most important issue of our time, America is essentially twiddling its thumbs.


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