A major global debate is underway about the disruptive impact of new technologies. There is no doubt that modern technology has always been a force for good, responsible for countless positive developments – empowering people, improving lives, increasing productivity, advancing medical and scientific knowledge, and transforming society. Technological developments help drive unprecedented social and economic progress. But the Fourth Industrial Revolution also involves the development of advanced technologies that are causing disruption, new vulnerabilities, and harmful effects that are not fully understood, let alone managed. The digital world is facing cybersecurity challenges as global threats increase. Data theft and fraud, cyber attacks and disruptions to critical systems, power networks and financial markets are all part of the rising risk.
Communication technology now dominates our lives like never before. It brings untold benefits, but also new dangers. For example, the fake news phenomenon is not new. But its ubiquity today has a lot to do with digital technology, which has produced the proliferation of information channels and the expansion of social media. Online platforms have become tools for spreading misinformation. Fake news is easy to spread due to the amplification effect of social media in an almost unregulated environment. The anonymity of social media platforms reassures trolls and propagators of false stories that they are not responsible for their lies or hateful messages. As a result, fake news is posted on social media without fear of retaliation. “Deepfakes” – videos doctored using artificial intelligence (AI) – are now commonly used to mislead and deceive.
The profit motives and business models of social media companies prevent them from really scrutinizing divisive and inflammatory content, whether true or false. This means that “digital wildfires” are rarely contained. Digital technologies are also being misused for crime, terrorist recruitment, and hatred, all of which endanger society. This challenges social stability in what is now called the post-truth era.
Digital technologies are also exacerbating polarization and division within countries. Research points to its damaging effects on political institutions and democracy. In a March 2022 article in the European Journal of Futures Research, the authors wrote: “In a web full of bots, trolls, and fakes, skepticism and apparent reliance on different types of AI have led to is an unprecedented standard of polarization and intolerance. This is exacerbating and concretizing as leaders with questionable democratic reputations come to power.” The link between the rise of right-wing populist leaders and their cynical but effective deployment of social media is now well established.
New technologies bring opportunities and dangers to nations and people.
There are many dangers to artificial intelligence or machine intelligence, such as violating privacy and breaching multiple security dimensions. The biggest threat posed by autonomous weapon systems is that they can make decisions and even strategies at the hands of humans. They can target and neutralize adversaries independently and operate without human judgment or thoughtful risk calculations. Today, artificial intelligence fuels the arms race for lethal autonomous weapons in a new arena of superpower competition.
Co-authored by Henry Kissinger, Eric Schmidt and Daniel Huttenlocher, The Age of Artificial Intelligence: The Future of Our Humanity sheds light on the dangers of the future. According to the author (Schmidt is a former CEO of Google), AI ushered in a new era of human consciousness, “driving a revolution in human affairs.” But they argue that this causes humans to lose the ability to reason, reflect and conceptualize. In fact, it can “permanently change our relationship with reality.”
Their discussion of the military uses of artificial intelligence and how it could be used in warfare is particularly instructive. AI will enhance conventional, nuclear and cyber capabilities, making security relationships between rivals more problematic and conflict more difficult to limit. In the nuclear age, the goal of national security strategy is deterrence, the authors say. It depends on a series of key assumptions – the known capabilities of the adversary, accepted doctrine and predictable responses. Their core thesis on the disruptive nature of AI weapons and cyber capabilities is that their value and effectiveness stem from their “opaqueness and deniability, which in some cases are undermined by disinformation, intelligence gathering and sabotage. Operating with fuzzy boundaries…strategizing without accepted doctrine”. They argue that this can lead to disastrous results. They note the competition between China and the United States for AI dominance, with other countries likely to join as well. Artificial intelligence capabilities are challenging traditional notions of security, and this smart book highlights that injecting “non-human logic into military systems” could lead to disaster.
Advanced, next-generation military technologies are gaining increasing attention for their broad implications for international peace and stability. More than 20 years of remote-controlled warfare by U.S.-led Western forces in Afghanistan has involved the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones. This had serious consequences and resulted in the killing of innocent people. In 2007, the United States used a cyber weapon, the Stuxnet computer worm, to attack Iranian facilities to reduce its nuclear program, the first of its kind. More recently, Russian and Ukrainian militaries have used remote-controlled aerial platforms in the Ukrainian conflict. Reliance on technology can expose belligerent nations to unexpected problems. Front-line Ukrainian soldiers, for example, faced disruptions to internet satellite services, which were supposed to prevent Russian troops from using the technology. According to reports, this digital disruption caused a severe disruption of communications between Ukrainian troops.
Despite the risks and dangers of these new technologies, there is no international effort aimed at regulating them, let alone regulating their use. Great powers haven’t had any conversations about cyber and AI arms control. If the global internet cannot be regulated and giant, irresponsible social media companies continue to extract excess profits, there is even less prospect of mitigating the devastating impact of cyber and AI military capabilities.
The author is a former ambassador to the United States, the United Kingdom and the United Nations.
Posted in Dawn, October 17, 2022