May the Smartest Machine Win: Warfare in the 21st Century

August 6, 2001 by Ray Kurzweil

How technology is changing the ways in which wars are fought, written for “The Futurecast,” a monthly column in the Library Journal.

Originally published October 1993. Published on August 6, 2001.

Machinery will perform all work – automata will direct all activities and the only tasks of the human race will be to make love, study and be happy. - The United States Review, 1853

Machinery in the form of computers is indeed intimately involved today in virtually all forms of work. Whether the human race is happier as a result is a matter of some debate. What we can say with some assurance is that with Moore’s law (i.e., the power of computation continuing to expand at an exponential rate) still alive and well, the pace of technological change will continue to accelerate.

This month’s Futurecast focuses on the impact of such change on a sector of society that has dominated human affairs since the dawn of civilization: the military. The key to military success in the 21st century will be, of course . . . the library. That will require a bit of explanation, but first, let us examine the changing nature of warfare.

The gulf of technology

May the smartest machine win. It has become increasingly evident to military strategists that intelligent computer technology is crucial to military success. The overwhelming dominance of the American and allied forces in the 1991 Gulf War was a powerful public demonstration of that lesson. While General Norman Schwarzkopf received a great deal of recognition and praise for his flanking strategy, it was clear that the allied forces could have moved in any direction they pleased and obtained the same result. Our computers had total control of the theater of battle. The war was won by the engineers of the Pentagon contractors.

Today, missiles and other pilotless craft can be launched from the air, ground, or sea hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of miles from their intended targets. These weapons find their way to their destinations using a variety of pattern-recognition and other computer technologies. Cruise rnissiles, for example, are programmed to recognize distinct visual features such as mountains, water formations, and buildings as they find their way to their targets.

For those flying craft that still use human pilots, computerized “pilot’s assistants” help fly, navigate, locate enemy targets, plot weapons trajectories, and perform many other tasks. The eyes and ears of satellites and robot drones provide detailed maps of enemy troops, weapons, and logistical support.

One benefit of such technology (aside from winning) is that more accurate destruction of enemy targets results in substantially less unintended damage to neighboring civilian populations and facilities (although there are still a few bugs in these systems). Although Iraqi military casualties were severe, Iraqi civilian casualties were remarkably light. Compare that to the enormous destruction that resulted from our buckshot bombing tactics during the Vietnam War.

The human touch

Few observers are heralding this development, however, because of concurrent “improvements” in the sheer destructiveness of weapons. As terrifying as the atomic weapons that ended World War II were, we now possess more than a million times more destructive power. Children growing up today belong to the first generation born into an era in which the complete destruction of the human race is plausible. While the specter of an all-out nuclear war has receded with the crumbling of the Soviet Union, the weapons still exist. Moreover, there is growing concern because of the tens of thousands of nuclear weapons still in the former Soviet Union that are under questionable authority and supervision.

The most evident technologies behind this radical change in the potential destructiveness of warfare are not computer technologies, but, of course, atomic fission and fusion. The potential for worldwide catastrophe would not be possible, however, without weapons-delivery systems, which rely heavily on computer intelligence.

Electronic dogs of war

Let us consider military technology and strategy several decades into the next century at which time these trends should have fully matured. By that time, flying weapons (missiles, robot planes, and flying munitions) will be highly self-reliant. Such craft will be capable of being launched from virtually any place on earth or from space and still find their targets by using a combination of advanced vision and pattern-recognition technologies. They will obviously need the ability to avoid or counteract defensive weapons intended for their destruction.

Clearly, of primary strategic importance will be the sophistication, indeed the intelligence, of both the offensive and defensive systems of such weapons. Geography is already losing its strategic importance. It will be of almost no importance several decades from now. Such slow-moving vehicles as tanks and ships, as well as battle stations, whether land-, sea-, air-, or space-based, will be vulnerable unless defended by arrays of intelligent weapons.

Most weapons today destroy their targets with explosions or, less often, bullets. Within the next few decades it is likely that laser and particle beam weapons will be perfected. This will provide such fast-moving weapons as cruise missiles with a variety of means for both offense and defense.

Planes, particularly those closest to combat, will not require pilots. It should be noted that the most limiting factor for military aircraft today is the restrictions on movement imposed by having a human crew. A pilotless craft can engage in rapid and abrupt maneuvers that could not be survived by human cargo. With sophisticated enough electronic technology, there is no reason why planes cannot be detected from afar by either human or machine intelligence. Thus another critical technology will be reliable and will be able to secure communications to prevent an enemy from taking control of remote-controlled robot aircraft and missiles. Indeed, the three Cs – command, control, and communication – are emerging as the cornerstones of future military strategy.

In general, the interactions of future weapons are likely to be so fast that human reflexes will not be the primary criterion of tactical success. Weapons will use a variety of their tactical offensive and defensive capabilities within seconds or even milliseconds when meeting comparable enemy systems. In such encounters, the most capable and reliable electronics and software will clearly prevail.

A farewell to arms

As a child I read a story I found particularly appealing. It was a tale about a very advanced civilization that had outlawed war and replaced it with a more refined form of conflict. Rather than resort to deadly weapons, two societies challenging each other for supremacy engaged in a game of chess. Each society could select their best master player or use a committee. No one thought to use machine intelligence for this task, but presumably each society could use whatever means it had at its disposal to select its moves. Whoever won the board conflict won the war and, apparently, its spoils.

How this was enforced was not discussed, but one can imagine that warfare in the future may not be all that dissimilar from this tale. If human reflexes and eventually human decision-making, at least on a tactical level, are replaced with machine intelligence, then two societies could let their machines fight out the conflict and let them know who wins (probably it would be obvious who had prevailed). It would be convenient if the actual conflict took place in some remote place, like outer space. Here the enforcement of the winner’s prerogatives is evident: the losing society will have lost its machine defenders and will have no choice but to submit to the victor.

Pawns, knights, missiles

There is one difference between this scenario and the childhood story about conflict resolution through chess that is worth pointing out. An earlier Futurecast (“A Formula for Intelligence: The Recursive Paradigm,” LJ, September 15, 1992, p. 46-47) discussed three levels of intelligence. These levels are based on a recursive formula for intelligence in which a computer exhaustively examines all possible choices in a decision, and all possible counterresponses to each choice, and so-on in an ever-expanding tree of possibilities and counterpossibilities.

That column noted that intelligent problems appear to fall into three levels or classes. Level I are problems that can be completely analyzed in these terms, with tic-tac-toe as a classic example. Level 2 are problems that are too complex to analyze completely but in which the recursive formula alone is sufficient to provide performance equal to or greater than human performance.

Computers are now able to match human performance in chess, for example, using only the recursive paradigm combined with enormous brute force in terms of computational capacity. There are, perhaps, only one or two dozen humans left who can defeat the fastest computers using the recursive formula, and that number is dwindling with each passing year.

The third level of intelligent problem consists of tasks for which the simple recursive formula alone is not sufficient, but for which we need to use other “deeper” techniques such as neural-net-based pattern-recognition methods. While chess is only a class 2 problem, battling weapons require the highest of intelligence – level 3. In addition to advanced pattern-recognition capabilities, future weapons systems will require the ability to abstract knowledge and synthesize their own tactical strategies.

Librarians in the trenches

Can we take any comfort from this vision? It is entirely possible that military engagements decades hence may involve relatively few casualties, particularly of a civilian nature. On the other hand, there is no guarantee that warfare will be constrained to weapons fighting weapons. The tactic of holding large civilian populations hostage will continue to have its adherents among military strategists.

What is clear, however, is that a profound change in military strategy is now taking place. The cornerstones of military power from the beginning of recorded history through recent times – geography, personpower, and firepower – are being replaced by the sophistication of computerized intelligence and communications.

Computers will also play a crucial role in directing battlefield strategy. Yet humans will still be the underlying determinants of military success. Military strength will be a function of the refinement of the technology, but a society’s human resources will create the technology. At least, that is likely to remain the case for the next half century.

On the front lines will not be soldiers, but scientists, engineers, and, yes, librarians. Not the neighborhood library perhaps, but the special engineering library will play a crucial role. Each new generation of military technology will exploit the weaknesses of the last. A comprehensive understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of a weapon, its vulnerabilities, its performance in real and simulated combat, and the capabilities of the weapons it is likely to encounter will be the basis for the next iteration of design. Engineers will work in close concert with their engineering librarian in structuring, accessing, and understanding the rapidly evolving literature on which such plans are based.

These will not be paper-based libraries. Today’s special librarian will evolve into an expert on the knowledge of where to find knowledge. Weapons systems, like other multifaceted engineering projects, will continue to grow in complexity and scope. Critical to their development will be the ability to organize and navigate massive amounts of rapidly changing information. The engineering librarian will be the design engineer’s copilot on the front lines of the military conflicts of the 21st century.

Reprinted with permission from Library Journal, October, 1993. Copyright © 1993, Reed Elsevier, USA

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