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  • Technology, Weapons and the Future

    | Photo: Reuters

Published 5 February 2015
Humanity's ability to survive in the long term, largely depends on its ability to control, abolish or manipulate technics.

"I no longer love blue skies. In fact, I now prefer grey skies. The drones do not fly when the skies are grey." - Zubair ur Rehman (Pakistani boy, 13 years old)

Breakthroughs in technology have always had a profound impact on weapons and militarism. Unfortunately, as many parts of the globe descend into utter chaos, some of the world's most talented engineers and scientists continue to develop killing machines for private entities who furnish the most deadly governments in the history of the world. For those involved, it's good business. Corporations get their profits; governments get their weapons; and engineers solidify their careers.

Meanwhile, how wars are fought and who, or what, exactly fights those wars continues to change at a rapid pace. As a result, humans are living in a very unique and particularly frightening period. Indeed, robotics technology is on the verge of creating fully autonomous robotic-weapons-systems able to determine who, what, where, when and why to kill. Throughout history, advancements in technology have always led to new and improved ways of killing people. Yet, this is much different, as humanity is approaching potentially catastrophic technological horizons that will fundamentally alter not only the future of militarism, but also everyday life.  

Weapons Always Advance

In the Neolithic-era, spears, bows, arrows and other rudimentary projectiles were used as weapons. During the Bronze Age, humans developed metal daggers and later swords. The Trebuchet, a primitive catapult, was first developed in 500BC and used in China by the Mohists. Around 800AD, in China, gunpowder was invented under the Song Dynasty and was commonly employed during battle via primitive firearms and rockets.

In 1260, during the Battle of Ain Jalut, the Mamluk Egyptians used hand cannons, or portable firearms, precursors to the modern handgun. In 1415, at the Battle of Agincourt, the world saw a new era in weapons technology as the English longbow was successfully used by Henry V's outnumbered forces against the French during the Hundred Years' War. From 1300 through 1644, China's Ming Dynasty developed several new forms of weapons technology, including the musket.

In 1775, the first submarine was used in battle and by 1803 the British inventor Henry Shrapnel created explosive rounds with small projectiles contained within—what we now call, shrapnel. Accordingly, sometime in the 1850s, the first multi-barreled gun was fired in Belgium, followed by the creation of the Gatling gun. By 1884, Hiram Stevens Maxim produced the first fully automatic machine gun that could continuously fire. During the same period, the USS Monitor, America's first "iron-clad" warship, launched from New York.

During World War I, warfare fundamentally changed, including the fact that the majority of people (90%) killed in the war were not soldiers or "enemy combatants," but civilians, and mostly women and children. The British Army introduced the first tanks and chemical weapons were used throughout the conflict. During World War II, the entire militaristic landscape was forever changed when the United States' Manhattan Project built and tested the first nuclear bomb.

Since then, the laser (Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation) was created and used to guide missiles and various other deadly weapons in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Libya and elsewhere. That is to say, available and emerging technologies have been utilized in battlefields around the globe for several millennia. Today, society is experiencing a profound revolution in robotics technology and battlefield weapons. What was once considered science fiction, is quickly becoming science reality.


Without doubt, the fighting machines of today resemble gadgets depicted in Phillip K. Dick's dystopian novels. Most notably, there's the Predator Unmanned Ariel Vehicle, or Drone. About the size of a school bus, the Predator is a very complex machine. It's linked to a command center, which features a soldier operating the aircraft via joystick, while utilizing several satellites in the Earth's orbit to conduct coordinated "precision-strikes," or assassinations. In other words, a teenage soldier comfortably sits in an air-conditioned facility in Nevada as he or she murders innocent people halfway around the world with the most advanced technology on earth.

According to Peter Singer, a Senior Research Fellow at the Brookings Institute, "The first predator drones were used in 1995 during the Balkan conflicts in Bosnia and Kosovo. By 2000, the Air Force was developing ways to weaponize predator drones, as they were previously used exclusively in spy missions. When the US started the war in Iraq, back in 2003, there were a handful of drones in the air. By 2010, there were over 5,300 drones operating in Iraqi airspace. Additionally, the US went into Iraq with zero unmanned ground systems. By 2010, there were over 12,000 operating in the combat zone."

To be clear, in a typical attack, a predator drone is soaring at 5,000 feet, firing at an enemy target one mile away, while destroying its target in 4 seconds. There is no sound, except, of course, the last-second hissing one might hear before being vaporized. Ideally, drone-operators prefer clear skies, as the clouds add another layer of difficulty when murdering people. Hence, many Pakistanis now loathe sunny, clear skies, as they are an indicator of things to come, namely hellfire missiles and scorched bodies.

As Singer mentions, there are now over thirty nations developing drone technologies. And that number will continue to grow. Indeed, much like the advent of nuclear weapons, advancements in robotics technology has started a trend that will be very difficult, if not impossible, to stop. However, unlike nuclear weapons, which determine the how of fighting wars, advancements in robotics technology will determine who or what will be fighting wars in the future.


Possibly the most important institution in the US with regard to further militarization, is DARPA, or the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. DARPA began as the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) which was initially created in 1958 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. To be clear, DARPA’s original mission was to prevent technological surprises like the launch of Sputnik, which signaled that the Soviets had beaten the US into space.

Of course, DARPA’s mission is still to maintain America's military technological superiority. DARPA has been responsible for funding the development of many technologies which have had a major effect on the world, including the stealth bomber, computer networking, as well as NLS, which was both the first hypertext system, and an important precursor to the contemporary ubiquitous graphical user interface. In fact, many credit DARPA with laying the technological and theoretical foundation that eventually led to the development of the internet.

Today, DARPA and Lockheed Martin have enlisted help from the robotics firm, Berkley Bionics, to engineer the human foot soldier, giving it super-human strength. The result is the HULC: Human Universal Load Carrier is a robotic exoskeleton for the human body. It's essentially a wearable robot. For instance, it takes cargo carried usually by several infantry troops, and distributes it throughout a single exoskeleton. This robotic exoskeleton works by mimicking the movements of the person who's wearing it. Force sensors read the onset of movement, then these readings are fed into a computer several thousand times per second. Before the pilot of the exoskeleton exerts any force, the computer calculates what each hydraulic muscle needs to do.

Most importantly, the ultimate goal of military scientists is full autonomy—robots that make decisions on their own. In some ways, this is an extension of the industrial revolution and technological revolution. Advancements in Japanese non-military droids give us a glimpse of robots developing the brain power needed to engage in autonomous battlefield operations. The Japanese computer firm, Fujitsu, has developed a series of robots called HOAP (Humanoid for Open Architecture Platform). These machines are able to learn movements the same way humans do. Right now, HOAP is used as a tool to help researchers in studying Artificial Intelligence and software for future robots.

HOAP's control system is run by a "Dynamically Reconfigurable Neural Network." Basically, scientists and engineers are using computers to simulate the kind of activities that take place in the human brain. This process allows robots to learn in the same fashion as human babies. Remember, a huge portion of AI research is the attempt to duplicate the process of "learning." As Artificial Neural Networks develop, they will allow robots to do more and more sophisticated actions. In short, human beings will no longer have to tell robots how to perform functions.

In a different fashion, DARPA is also developing microchips that would allow an operator to control and manipulate human emotions, particularly soldiers' emotions.  According to Antonio Regalado, a reporter for MIT Technology Review, "DARPA, [recently] awarded two large contracts to Massachusetts General Hospital and the University of California, San Francisco, to create electrical brain implants capable of treating seven psychiatric conditions, including addiction, depression, and borderline personality disorder." In the short term, Americans might be inclined to accept such technological advancements as they're cloaked in the guise of "saving the troops." On the other hand, one can easily imagine a future scenario where the state and corporate entities utilize such developments for sinister and insane ends.

Most importantly, at what point do we give the ability to make a kill decision to a machine? Some would argue that human machines already carry out such orders. Recently, there was a study prepared by the US Joint Forces Command, which suggested the US military will have the technology to develop autonomous battlefield robots by the year 2025.

The Future

Last year, a group of leading scientists, including Stephen Hawking, Stuart Russel, and others, penned an article in the Independent entitled, "Transcendence Looks at the Implications of Artificial Intelligence - but are we Taking AI Seriously Enough?" Indeed, the authors mention that the potential benefits of Artificial Intelligence could provide stellar advancements in the history of human civilization, particularly surrounding medical technology and capabilities.

However, Stephen Hawking notes that such "potential benefits" could be humanity's last great achievement:

"In the near term, world militaries are considering autonomous-weapon systems that can choose and eliminate targets; the UN and Human Rights Watch have advocated a treaty banning such weapons. In the medium term, as emphasized by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee in The Second Machine Age, AI may transform our economy to bring both great wealth and great dislocation." Hawking continued, "One can imagine such technology outsmarting financial markets, out-inventing human researchers, out-manipulating human leaders, and developing weapons we cannot even understand. Whereas the short-term impact of AI depends on who controls it, the long-term impact depends on whether it can be controlled at all."

Sometimes, developments in technologies have unforeseen consequences. For instance, historian Alfred C. McCoy notes that, "innovations in the management of textual, statistical, and visual data" have aided the US empire's ability to oversee and control its imperial victims and domestic rabble. He goes on, "During two extraordinary decades, American inventions like Thomas Alva Edison’s quadruplex telegraph (1874), Philo Remington’s commercial typewriter (1874), Melvil Dewey’s library decimal system (1876), and Herman Hollerith’s patented punch card (1889) created synergies that led to the militarized application of America’s first information revolution."

Today, a "Swedish bio-hacking group" is experimenting with a microchip that's placed under the skin of someone's hand, allowing them to "gain entry to their office," "get on a bus" or "pay for a sandwich." Rory Cellan-Jones of BBC News writes, "No doubt more sophisticated chips will soon replace wearable technology like fitness bands or payment devices, and we will get used to being augmented." It doesn't end with weapons, or emotional stabilizing agents, this culture's urge to "augment" itself could very well determine the future of the planet.

Undemocratic technics, as Lewis Mumford explained in his work Technics and Civilizationwill inherently contribute to society's technological stratification and concentration of power. Right now, many of the world's top scientists, biologists, engineers, computer programmers and mathematicians are working on new and improved ways to murder human beings. Thus, humanity's ability to survive in the long term, largely depends on its ability to control, abolish or manipulate technics. If, of course, concentrated forms of power determine how, why and in what ways future technologies are developed and implemented, it's not difficult to contemplate the repercussions.

This, unfortunately, will not change without a drastic reconfiguration of society and its various institutions. If current trends continue, the living world should expect more social carnage, cultural alienation and ecological devastation. Those who own and operate universities, corporations and governments undoubtedly wield great power and influence. Until students control the universities, workers control corporations and the state is managed by working-class and poor citizens, regular folks will have little to say about why, how in what ways these technologies are implemented.

Vincent Emanuele is a writer, activist and radio journalist. He can be reached at vince.emanuele@ivaw.org

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