The increased threat of information warfare and other disruptive technologies
Nuclear war and climate change are major threats to the physical world. But information is an essential aspect of human interaction, and threats to the information ecosphere—especially when coupled with the emergence of new destabilizing technologies in artificial intelligence, space, hypersonics, and biology—portend a dangerous and multifaceted global instability.
In recent years, national leaders have increasingly dismissed information with which they do not agree as fake news, promulgating their own untruths, exaggerations, and misrepresentations in response. Unfortunately, this trend accelerated in 2019. Leaders claimed their lies to be truth, calling into question the integrity of, and creating public distrust in, national institutions that have historically provided societal stability and cohesion.
In the United States, there is active political antagonism toward science and a growing sense of government-sanctioned disdain for expert opinion, creating fear and doubt regarding well-established science about climate change and other urgent challenges. Countries have long attempted to employ propaganda in service of their political agendas. Now, however, the internet provides widespread, inexpensive access to worldwide audiences, facilitating the broadcast of false and manipulative messages to large populations and enabling millions of individuals to indulge in their prejudices, biases, and ideological differences.
The recent emergence of so-called “deepfakes”—audio and video recordings that are essentially undetectable as false—threatens to further undermine the ability of citizens and decision makers to separate truth from fiction. The resulting falsehoods hold the potential to create economic, social, and military chaos, increasing the possibility of misunderstandings or provocations that could lead to war, and fomenting public confusion that leads to inaction on serious issues facing the planet. Agreement on facts is essential to democracy and effective collective action.
Other new technologies, including developments in biological engineering, high-speed (hypersonic) weapons, and space weapons, present further opportunities for disruption.
Genetic engineering and synthetic biology technologies are now increasingly affordable, readily available, and spreading rapidly. Globally, governments and companies are collecting vast amounts of health-related data, including genomic data, ostensibly for the purpose of improving healthcare and increasing profits. But the same data could also be useful in developing highly effective biological weapons, and disagreements regarding verification of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention continue to place the world at risk.
Artificial intelligence is progressing at a frenzied pace. In addition to the concern about marginally controlled AI development and its incorporation into weaponry that would make kill decisions without human supervision, AI is now being used in military command and control systems. Research and experience have demonstrated the vulnerability of these systems to hacking and manipulation. Given AI’s known shortcomings, it is crucial that the nuclear command and control system remain firmly in the hands of human decision makers.
There is increasing investment in and deployment of hypersonic weapons that will severely limit response times available to targeted nations and create a dangerous degree of ambiguity and uncertainty, at least in part because of their likely ability to carry either nuclear or conventional warheads. This uncertainty could lead to rapid escalation of military conflicts. At a minimum, these weapons are highly destabilizing and presage a new arms race.
Meanwhile, space has become a new arena for weapons development, with multiple countries testing and deploying kinetic, laser, and radiofrequency anti-satellite capabilities, and the United States creating a new military service, the Space Force.
The overall global trend is toward complex, high-tech, highly automated, high-speed warfare. The computerized and increasingly AI-assisted nature of militaries, the sophistication of their weapons, and the new, more aggressive military doctrines asserted by the most heavily armed countries could result in global catastrophe.