On July 30th I gave an hour-long presentation on “Nanotechnology and the Future of Warfare” at the World Future Society’s annual conference. You can view the presentation here.
About 60 people attended and peppered me with many excellent questions both during and after my talk. Overall, the audience was quite enthusiastic and responsive.
I opened by quoting from Harvard University professor Steven Pinker, who recently wrote:
Violence has been in decline over long stretches of history, and today we are probably living in the most peaceful moment of our species’ time on earth…
In the decade of Darfur and Iraq, and shortly after the century of Stalin, Hitler, and Mao, the claim that violence has been diminishing may seem somewhere between hallucinatory and obscene. Yet recent studies that seek to quantify the historical ebb and flow of violence point to exactly that conclusion.
The big question, of course, is whether this evident decline in violence can be expected to continue. I then discussed what I consider to be an approaching period of perilous geopolitical instability, when…
Weapons of mass destruction will be more varied, more deadly, more available, cheaper to obtain, and easier to hide.
The strength (and the ambitions) of regional powers will increase rapidly while the stabilizing might of the U.S. could be in decline.
New technologies such as genetic engineering, robotics, nanotechnology, and possibly artificial intelligence could enable radical shifts in the balance of power.
Global climatic conditions – including increased frequency and severity of killer storms, droughts, infrastructure damage, crop failures, and even whole ecosystem collapses – will contribute to growing tensions.
After reviewing the basics of nanotechnology and desktop manufacturing, I turned to the topic of WMDs and the future of warfare. I asked the audience to consider these three important points:
In modern warfare, the target of attack is not the opposing military – it is the will and capacity of states to make war.
The real target of WMDs is not the victims, but the survivors.
WMD = Not just weapons of destruction, but also of disruption.
We then spent some time talking about the four main elements that comprise weapons systems. These are: a) payloads; b) methods of targeting; c) modes of delivery; and d) means of production. In each area we are seeing rapid change, bringing radically enhanced, more dangerous, and potentially more disruptive military applications.
The most significant of these elements may be the last, the means of production. When applied to weapons of mass destruction/disruption, it could be a titanic lever for dramatically shifting balances of power.
Finally, I asked people to think about the future of warfare in four dimensions:
Technologies - Which will be the most powerful and possibly destabilizing future military technologies?
Timing - How soon could change arise, and what might take us by surprise?
Context - What other societal shifts, outside of technology, must be taken into account to envision a near future geopolitical environment?
Policies - Which combination of national, international, corporate, and civil society policy planning will lead to the safest world of tomorrow?
It’s difficult in just one hour to convey all the complexities of such a big topic, and it’s even tougher in a 500-word blog article. Obviously, we discussed a lot more than what I’m able to include here. Please ask if you want elaboration on any of these points.