Many of the dangers we face indeed arise from science and technology—but, more fundamentally, because we have become powerful without becoming commensurately wise. The world-altering powers that technology has delivered into our hands now require a degree of consideration and foresight that has never before been asked of us. – Carl Sagan
By all accounts the Fourth Industrial Revolution (or Industry 4.0, if you prefer) is already well underway. Developments such as increased digitisation and interconnection via Internet of Things (IoT) are driving far-reaching transformations at a historically unprecedented rate. The First and Second Industrial Revolutions introduced the use of steam and electric power, respectively, to enable mass production, while the Third Revolution saw the integration of computers, electronics, and digital information and communication technology (ICT) which have since become ubiquitous to modern life.
Characterized by increasingly prevalent combinations and synergistic fusions of existing and novel technologies, the Fourth Industrial Revolution builds upon its predecessors, evolving at an exponential rate with widespread disruptive effects. Advances in and possible combinations of emerging technologies, including big data, artificial intelligence (AI), additive manufacturing (3D printing), autonomy, quantum computing, biotechnologies, hypersonics, space, and materials science, to name but a few amongst an ever growing list, hold significant potential to address injustices and improve quality of life on a global scale. With great potential, however, also comes great risk as the vastly accelerated pace of change and advancement in emerging and disruptive technologies (EDTs) have increasingly salient effects on international security, strategic stability, and the nature of and rules of so-called ‘gray zones’ and ‘hybrid warfare’.
What are emerging and disruptive technologies (EDTs)?
Many of the technologies that would come to define the modern era (computers, nuclear power, space-based ICT and GPS systems, etc.) arose as a direct result of public investment driven by geopolitical competition and arms race dynamics between the U.S. and its allies, and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The U.S. Department of Defense’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) was created in 1958 (PDF) by President Eisenhower as a direct response to the successful launch of Sputnik 1 by the USSR. Perhaps the most striking difference in the nature of S&T research and development (R&D) since then has been the enormous amount of private investment (PDF) in so-called dual-use technologies typically reserved for civilian purposes, but with notable military applications. (In this policy report (PDF) the U.S. Department of Health & Human services employs an updated definition of Dual Use Research of Concern (DURC) with regard to life sciences disciplines).
NATO’s Science & Technology Trends 2020-2040 report explores a number of likely and impending security implications of advanced science and technology (S&T) developments over the next 20 years. Drawing from a network of collective insights from NATO’s broad S&T community, the report provides a helpful framework from which to constructively engage with and discuss the future of defence-related EDTs.
While by no means the definitive authority on the subject (though still a worthwhile read in its entirety), the S&T report’s framing notably distinguishes between emerging and disruptive technologies while separately considering the potential for convergent uses of multiple integrated technologies. Emerging refers to technologies requiring longer time horizons (approximately 10-20 years) for maturation and whose development trajectories are less certain at present. Disruptive technologies are in a more advanced state of technological maturation and are already having or are expected to have significant and potentially revolutionary impacts on the nature of warfare and collective defence and security in the period 2020-2040 (more specifically within the next 5-10 years). Convergent technologies refer to novel combinations of existing and/or new technologies which, when operated in conjunction with one another, are disruptive in effect.
What counts as disruptive?
The ‘D’ in EDTs refers to a revolutionary potential to alter the existing status quo and challenge or change fundamental aspects of social and economic life. Dr. Frank G. Hoffman from the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) has likened the convergence of major breakthrough in fields such as robotics, information, and materials science as heralding a 7th Military Revolution, (what he calls ‘the Age of Autonomy’).
Even today, the rapid pace of technological advancement in an ever-evolving geopolitical security environment is having profound effects on the nature of conflict. Concerns regarding the potentially destabilizing effects of EDTs on strategic stability, if nothing else, force one to take pause to consider the gravity of such implications.
The STO’s technology trends report (PDF) identifies eight major EDTs expected to have revolutionary effects in the next two decades: Big Data and Advanced Analytics (BDAA), Artificial Intelligence (AI), Autonomy, Space, Hypersonics, Quantum, Biotechnology, and Materials. While each of these S&T areas are at the bleeding edge and complex enough to deserve far more attention in their own right, few if any of them are likely to have significant impact in isolation. Convergent combinations and synergies, such as Data-AI-Autonomy, and Space-Hypersonics-Materials are just two of several striking combinations expected to see significant inter-relations and -dependencies in the future, though other, as-of-yet-unimagined, amalgamations are sure to yield unexpected results.
Featured Image: Copyright © NATO Science & Technology Organization, 2020
Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed in articles are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the NATO Association of Canada.