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Peter Cochrane's Blog: Can tech end bloody wars?

How military conflicts could turn into a child's game of tag

Compiled on the M6 driving to Birmingham, edited later in my hotel, and dispatched to silicon.com from Leeds via a free wi-fi service the next day.

Throughout my life I have seen warfare mutate from the World War II model to terrorism, the threat of weapons of mass destruction and cyber attacks. Like all aspects of human activity, this has been powered by raw technology, and the advances in the next lifetime will most likely be even more dramatic than what we've seen so far.

Today the span of conflict is vast, and ranges from hand-to-hand fighting at one end of the spectrum to killer robots at the other. And the autonomous, swarm killers are already under development.

For some interesting timelines of wars and technology, see this website.

So, where is all this going?

In reality the biggest threats are probably cyber attacks and what I call weapons of mass disruption. Individuals, groups and nations can attack each other using denial-of-service attacks and/or control-and-command usurping with bot technology. The potential for disrupting utilities providers, government and industry systems is huge and could turn out to be far more effective than bombs and bullets.

If we look on and over the horizon, a new force is emerging that may just sideline human efforts at inflicting damage. It starts with artificial intelligence deployed in autonomous robots and networks, and then migrates to artificial life that permeates everything from the internet to individual machines.

In warfare, as in everything else, it is most likely we will empower the machines with more and more capabilities and responsibility. Ultimately they will probably slip though our fingers and just do their own thing. Many futurists refer to this point at which the machines take over and we become subservient as 'the singularity'.

Whether or not this actually happens is still a matter of speculation but what is really important is the potential for the reduction in the number of wars, human casualties and collateral damage.

The bad news is: I can't see our species ever reaching the level of sensibility that says we will not invoke any form of warfare to settle disputes.

The good news is: The machines might just be smart enough to negotiate on our behalf.

Of course there is another alternative: it all goes virtual! We already have troops training on computer games, and in some cases the split between the real and the simulation is hard to discern. So warfare might ultimately become a big game where all casualties and damage is virtual - no one need ever get hurt. Only pride will suffer.

Paradoxically, some old civilizations reached this state without the aid of machines. The cost of a 'real' war was so great in some tribal situations that they resorted to methods closely resembling a child's game of tag. Just a tap on any part of the body with a real weapon eliminated a player from the war. Sound familiar?

I will leave you with my visual illustration of the evolution of warfare.

evolution of warfare

About Peter Cochrane

Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.

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