The Fluid Society

Digital Arms Race

Digital Red Button. In the digital society, countries no longer make it difficult for each other with the threat of nuclear weapons. President Trump’s red nuclear button has probably already been replaced by a red button that he can use to digitally force any country to the knees: stopping all communication in a country (telecommunications, internet, social media), stopping all vital infrastructure (bridges, power plants, traffic regulations, airports, ports), bombarding with fake news (if social media still works). We saw a small example recently when India stopped all communication in Kashmir, so that nobody knew what was happening there anymore and the army could effortlessly take up position.

NRC and PAX. The NRC (Dutch quality newspaper) had an article on August 18 2019 on this topic: “Tech companies invest in deadly, autonomous weapons.” The article indicates that Amazon and Microsoft are concerned about the development of “murder robots”. A number of other tech giants would have distanced themselves from these developments. The information comes from the PAX organization (a peace organization) that has published a “Don’t be evil” research report about it. The essence of the report is that tech companies, together with the government, develop “killer robots” that can take decisions autonomously, without human intervention, to kill people.

“Dual-use” technology. The report points out that where in the past special defence companies were at the forefront of the development of all kinds of new weaponry, in the digital world the leading well known tech companies are at the forefront. Almost all of them develop technologies for “dual-use”: suitable for both peace purposes and defence. Think of: Artificial intelligence, killer robots, data science, augmented reality glasses (mixing reality with computer-added images), exoskeletons (to make soldiers stronger and less vulnerable), drones, face recognition, and much more. And for espionage purposes, regular tele / data communication equipment (Huawei) is excellent.

Digital Arms Race. All major powers are now working on the development of the aforementioned digital technologies for defence purposes and you can safely speak of a digital arms race. China, Russia and the US seem to be at the forefront of this. But France and the UK are also busy. As stated in the preamble: a new war will almost certainly not be nuclear in nature but digital. The advantages of digital warfare over traditional nuclear warfare are immense: no casualties, no material damage, cheap, maximum and rapid impact. And after the digital capitulation you can just walk in, without a shot being fired and without a victim falling. All superpowers are aware of the great possibilities of digital warfare.

In parallel with the nuclear arms race. Where you should expect and hope that the superpowers would jointly take the lead to halt certain developments, or to investigate the ethical aspects of certain technologies, we now see a real arms race by each large nation to get the desired technologies as quickly as possible. If the situation then becomes too threatening after a number of years, because countries can switch off each other digitally completely or after small-scale digital incidents have occurred, a discussion will undoubtedly arise, such as at the time with nuclear weapons, about stopping the further spread of all or certain digital weapons. Of course after the superpowers first have provided themselves with the most effective digital weaponry, they will impose on other countries by means of a “non-proliferation” treaty that they may not possess or develop such weapons.

Uncontrollability of digital weaponry. However, the problem that arises here is that the control of digital weapon arsenals is virtually impossible. In contrast to nuclear weapons, many digital weapons (including hackers) can sometimes be developed or deployed on a very cheap and small-scale basis. They can be developed very easily in secret, are easy to hide, are not traceable and can sometimes (depending on the technology) be used independently of location (via the internet, telecommunication equipment). All this will lead to digital weapons that different from nuclear weapons, are not exclusively owned by (major) powers. Small countries, but also private organisations and criminals can use the same digital weaponry as superpowers with little effort.

Quick intervention is urgently required. The current digital arms race is therefore an extremely dangerous and almost uncontrollable development. Governments should therefore meet as soon as possible to discuss developments and the state of affairs in consultation with major tech companies and to take global measures to stop unwanted developments. It is not possible to wait until the superpowers have first provided themselves, and then to stop the developments. Nor can we wait for tech companies to voluntarily stop certain developments, simply because, as is already happening now, some companies will and others will not take measures. Compared to nuclear developments, digital developments are much faster, because the technologies are cheap and easy to develop. As a world we are in danger of the digital arms race ending up in an extremely dangerous situation that thus cannot be tackled quickly enough.

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