Futurists and defense analysts alike increasingly are focusing on IT and computing as the central pillars of looming industrial-societal and military transformations. Advances in networking, big data, sensors and computing power are changing most aspects of everyday life, many industrial processes, and even the value of human capital. Our lives are an open book to Internet service companies, online providers of content and products, the NSA and any reasonably competent hacker. How we relate to one another is being changed by the way the Internet allows/requires us to communicate. Politics has been forever changed by the ability of parties and groups to hyper-target potential voters. Print media has been decimated by the rise of cable and Internet news outlets and the promise that whatever opinions one has will be supported by the information provided by the news service of your choice. Psychologists and biologists are increasingly of the mind that intensive use of IT and computers is changing the way our children think and learn and even how their brains are wired.
When the power of IT and computing are merged with advances in manufacturing the outcome could shake the world. 3D printing, which marries up advances in sensors, computer modeling and controls, networked communications and industrial robotics, could well rewrite the book on industrial processes, the character of the corporation, patent law, labor relations and global trading patterns among other areas.
At the heart of this transformation is the rise of the machines (my apologies to the Terminator franchise). Machines — to include all forms of computers and communications devices — are increasingly replacing people. This phenomenon started with the use of calculating machines to speed the pace of laborious mathematical and accounting activities. It then moved onto the assembly line where robotic welders and assemblers could reduce the wear and tear on human line workers but also respond much more agilely than their biological counterparts to changes in the design or material basis of many products. Now machines are replacing people everywhere from the operating room to the garage at your office building. Some opponents of raising the minimum wage warn that it will simply speed up the rate at which low-skilled workers are replaced by machines.
Will this same set of technological revolutions transform the way military forces are organized and operated? Certainly, the explosion of capabilities in IT and computing have radically improved the ability of military forces to communicate, coordinate activities on the battlefield and locate and strike targets. But all of these advances are matters of degree, not kind. Improved target location and weapons accuracy allow force to be applied in lower amounts and more discretely for greater effect. Strike operations by a few dozen aircraft in 2003 could achieve more than what the entire 8th Air Force could do in a single raid in 1944. But the mission remains essentially unchanged. The fruits of the IT and computing revolution allow the military to do with finesse what used to require brute force to accomplish.
The real change in the ways of warfare will come when — or more accurately if — the military follows the private sector’s lead in replacing people with machines. One way this might come about is if cyber warfare becomes the normal form of combat, at least when technologically-capable foes are involved. The warning by some intelligence officials of a potential cyber “Pearl Harbor” that wipes out U.S. military and civilian communications, power grids and data bases needs to be taken seriously. The other avenue is more commonly that of science fiction: when largely autonomous, armed robots actually take to the battlefield. The military has autonomous robots in the form of various unmanned air, land and sea systems. The military also has armed robots such as the Reaper UAV and the Talon ground-based system. There are even autonomous, armed robots; they are called fire and forget missiles. So far, military robots have supported or complemented human-centered operations. But this could change.
Advances in IT, computing and robotics are now being driven by the non-defense, commercial world. The rate of change in commercial IT and computing is on the order of every six to eighteen months; for the military it is usually a decade or more. So the day is coming, and soon, when the military will be largely dependent on the commercial world for its IT, computing and robots.
This brings me to the subject of Google. Google has evolved over the years from just a great search engine to a serious content creator and provider and now into a central hub in global communications and networking. In order to protect its core franchises, Google has also become a major force in cyber security. Most recently, Google has chosen to become a significant player in the areas of robotic systems, artificial intelligence and 3D printing. You add all these pieces together and the only question left is will Google become the leading U.S. or even world defense company?
Daniel Goure, Ph.D.
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