Technology has shaped warfare throughout history. Whether it is the steam engine or railways, electricity or aviation, each in its own way has changed human society as well as the nature of war. These were transformative innovations, not undertaken with a military objective.
On the other hand, the tank, which made its appearance during World War I, is an example of a military technology – a vehicle with armour, firepower and all-terrain mobility.
World War II and the Cold War in the following years introduced two new technologies, both pursued as military programmes. The nuclear bomb was successfully tested by the US in 1945 and the Soviet Union launched Sputnik-1 in 1957. Nukes and missiles shaped the Cold War rivalry. Though both technologies developed civilian applications subsequently, space more than nuclear, with remote sensing and satellite communication, the military focus dominated the Cold War. Even the GPS was originally designed for military use.
While efforts to mitigate wars are as old as the history of wars, their basis lay in “international humanitarian law”. It combined “rules of war” to ensure distinction between combatants and civilians, and proportionality in response, along with efforts to ban certain weapons that caused unnecessary suffering.
The Cold War added ‘proliferation’ as the new risk to global security and stability, and with this was born the idea of controlling the dissemination of ‘dual-use technologies’. Often, this was difficult to achieve through treaty negotiations and therefore technology controls were implemented by ad-hoc groupings of like-minded countries on the basis of political understandings. Prime examples of such groupings are the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) set up in 1974 (originally called London Club) and the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) in 1987.
The age of digital networks
Just as the steam engine and mechanisation defined the First Industrial Revolution, electricity and mass production the Second, electronics and computers the Third, we are on the cusp of the Fourth Industrial Revolution today, best described as ADN or the Age of Digital Networks. The technologies driving it came into being a quarter century ago but are now converging, amplifying the magnitude, and accelerating the pace of change. More than half of the global Fortune 500 companies in 2000 no longer exist or have gone bankrupt, and it is estimated that 40 per cent of those making it to the latest rankings will disappear within a decade.
The key to this change lies in digitalisation, converting physical, social and biological lives of individuals and societies into data. This is accompanied by rapidly reducing price of data computation (down to 10-8 from 1990s), fall in price of data storage by a similar factor, improved power efficiency of chips (by 1011), and crashing speeds of data transmission.
Cheaper large-scale computing and cheaper connectivity mean that data transmission grew from 100 GB per day in 1992 to 45,000 GB per second in 2017 and will be an estimated 1,50,000 GB per second by 2020 with Internet of Things (IoT), smart cities and connected wearables. It is estimated that from the dawn of civilisation till 2003, humankind generated 5 exabytes (5 billion GB) of data; by 2010, 5 exabytes of data were being generated every two days, and by 2025, we will generate an estimated 463 exabytes every day.
All battles are not physical
The effort to make machines act “intelligently” has existed since the mid-19th century when Charles Babbage designed his steam-powered computer. However, using large data with today’s computation capabilities has transformed the field of Artificial Intelligence, and with it, the nature of warfare. Just as the largest taxi company today may not own a single car in the fleet or the largest hotel chain a single room, wars have been hybridised. AI has transformed C4ISR and is now converging with affective computing, cyber and biotechnologies, robotics and additive manufacturing.
In the digital world, instead of physical battles being fought by militaries over territory, minds and behaviour of an adversary will be manipulated. China has made no secret of its desire to overcome the maritime constraints imposed by the first and the second island chains. In the 20th century it would have to confront the US Indo-Pacific Command to achieve it, but today, it can ‘persuade’ the US to withdraw by weakening its treaty commitments and reducing its presence in the region.
Majority of governments have found it difficult to grasp the nature of this challenge because of its expansive dual-use character. The Intellectual Property rights relating to these technologies rest with private enterprises because these did not emerge out of military-driven R&D. Some authoritarian governments have been quick to adapt to the changing nature of the digital battlefield and have developed tools to manipulate and discredit oppositions while creating firewalls for their security. The challenge for democracies is to inoculate their societies by developing accountability and transparency.
Go beyond piecemeal efforts
For any global order, two conditions are necessary – first, a convergence of views between major powers of the day, and second, an ability to sell the idea to the rest of the countries as a global good. The UN is a good example. Set up in 1945 by the victors of WW II, it came to enjoy universal membership while maintaining the privileged position of the founders as permanent members in the Security Council.
Today, there is no convergence among major powers. Second, the dual-use technologies concerned have spawned a new Industrial Revolution. So far, there have been piecemeal efforts to develop a framework for DNA synthesis or explore restrictions on Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems. However, a new social compact will need to evolve among stakeholders concerned before any significant governance structures for these technologies can be designed.
This article is part of a series examining The Future of Data in partnership with Carnegie India leading up to its Global Technology Summit 2019 in Bengaluru from 4-6 December 2019. More details about the summit are available here.
The author is a former diplomat with experience in technology, non-proliferation and security issues and is currently Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation. Views are personal.