The bio-chemical warfare Geneva protocol, passed in 1925, forbids "use in war of asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases, and of all analogous liquids, materials or devices". Still, in the days of 2018, memories of nations alleging the use of chemical weapons by officially elected regimes in Syria and Iraq remain fresh, with more allegations sure to come forth in the future. When the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6th and 9th of 1945, a line was crossed in terms of warfare precedent that has yet to be crossed since. And yet, nations have continued to stockpile nuclear arms as if their existence depends on it. Because, in many ways, it does.
The progression of warfare technology is often unseen by the unwitting civilian. But, a sort of cold arms race is constantly occurring between nations, especially those at the forefront of industry and technological development; the U.S., China, Russia, Israel, etc. Regardless of what military spokesmen the world over publicly claim, or what the public thinks that it knows about the progress made in top-secret meetings and factories where weapons technology is devised and brought to fruition, there is only one true certainty: the development of military weaponry is dependent on the assumption that the other guy, whoever it may be, is developing the weapons of your worst nightmares.
The United States shocked the world with the use of the atomic bomb in 1945. In the 1960s, the Soviet Union’s perfection of the supercavitating torpedo struck fear into the hearts of rival shipmen who could be plunged to the depths without a hint of warning, and even if they were not, remained constantly stalked by the prospect of death by ghost-like U-boat. The drone has blurred the lines of U.S. foreign policy throughout the 2000s, re-defining warfare for better or worse, depending whether you are the one dropping or absorbing the missile. Now, the days of gamma-ray weapons are far from science fiction.
Point being, mankind has seemingly always found a way to push beyond not only conventional wisdom, but in some cases moral constraints, when it comes to developing the weaponry of tomorrow. There is no industry in which the inertia of innovation is so strong, because there is no field where the incentive for innovation is so great. Arms races emerge from the impetus to defend; a country, a people, a way of life. But, as ample wars have cruelly illustrated, there are lines that, once crossed, cannot be stepped back over.
The dropping of the atomic bomb has left an indelible scar on the United States’ reputation as a foreign agent, and has no doubt curried a level of resentment – and not just from the Japanese – that could have potentially been avoided or lessened with less drastic measures. Drone warfare, while an invaluable tool in saving the lives of countless soldiers on the side of those deploying the airborne stealth bombers, has also meant a sacrifice in precision, claiming civilian lives far more often than anybody would prefer.
With military innovation, there almost always comes a downside. But, as we have learned, no downside has proven great enough to cease military innovation altogether. Because warfare is a self-motivated, paranoid prospect – protecting ours at the cost of yours –, it’s true that whatever one thinks is inevitable, is a near certainty. To protect ours, our weaponry must be more advanced, more lethal, than yours.
This reality has been proven time and again by history, yet some seem to be dumbfounded when the common thread in history – human nature – proves itself the positive feedback loop which historians are well-acquainted with.
The latest instance of this inexplicable surprise in the face of military industry is the boycotting of “killer robots”, the term of endearment bestowed upon AI-powered weapons reportedly being produced by the renowned South Korean KAIST (Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology) University. The University is working in partnership with defense contractor Hanwha Systems to produce autonomous weaponry, and details are predictably sparse.
Those protesting these weapons, including Professor Toby Walsh of New South Wales, appear to be out of touch with the unceasing history of military innovation.
“We can see prototypes of autonomous weapons under development today by many nations including the US, China, Russia, and the UK,” said Walsh. “We are locked into an arms race that no one wants to happen. KAIST’s actions will only accelerate this arms race. We cannot tolerate this.” (The Verge)
Professors such as Toby Walsh and tech industry giants such as Elon Musk, Steve Wozniak and Stephen Hawking have all professed their fear of autonomous weapons, urging those who venture to develop them as well as the world at large of their danger. But, to think that they will deter the creation of autonomous weapons, whether they be swarming drones or humanoids holding machine guns, by signing petitions and writing letters is to ignore the inertia of military creation.
It’s human nature to protect, even if that means foregoing humans altogether. The rise of AI in battle could actually mean more human lives saved. It could also, with a decrease social criticism that comes from soldiers losing their lives, result in more cavalier engagement in conflict by the world’s leaders.
Regardless, the rise of “killer robots” is inevitable, and it was always inevitable if we choose to consult history’s lessons as evidence. The best we can do is hope that these weapons are not misused and abused. To wish them gone completely is to live in a fantasy of the past.