If you think Black Mirror was a horrifying dystopian portrayal of technology, read the latest Global Strategic Trends report by Ministry of Defence (MoD). The document, titled ‘The Future Starts Today’, forecasts changes that may face the armed forces within the next 45 years. In doing so, it covers the challenges humanity as whole, and us as individuals, could face.
The report covers many prominent global issues such as environmental stress, global warming and changing demography. However, it also passes comment on more political issues including the increasing importance of information, greater human empowerment and national and international transitions of power.
The most alarming aspects involve the uses of technology. When defence documents informing the armed forces start to read like science fiction, it’s a pretty good bet that we’re heading headfirst deep into the unknown.
If you enjoyed X-men then that statement that “human enhancement technologies, including gene editing, physical and cognitive prosthesis, and pharmaceutical enhancement, are nascent now and their development over the next 30 years is likely to offer profound expansion of the boundaries of human performance” may be of particular interest.
And for the fans of Terminator, the predictions that “applications of artificial intelligence will enable machines to develop perception, reasoning, solve problems, learn and plan” may draw attention.
While the Terminator trope is lazy, and the document doesn’t explicitly mention it, lethal autonomous weapons systems driven by AI are on the radar of many countries and are a source of endless international debate.
A recent report published by Drone Wars UK, Off the Leash, exposes the role British Universities play in developing technology used for this purpose. Upon reflection one may be lead to ask if this is something we should be going forward with, and to question the impact on the future of research taking place around us.
While on the one hand the report is quite clearly focussed on the defence, the wide ranging predictions of possibilities are surprising as they challenge its traditional role. An example of this is the described impact of social media. The publication emphasises it could “cause an ‘echo chamber’ effect polarising populations, eroding trust in institutions, creating uncertainty and fuelling grievances”.
Furthermore, the report begins to question the survival of states. It declares that: “the nation state is expected to remain the primary actor in shaping societies and in global politics for at least the next 30 years” but continues to comment that “state authorities may struggle to cope with the rate of change, level of uncertainty and the growing demands of their increasingly diverse populations.”
This makes the document an interesting reading for those whose interests fall outside of military affairs, especially when you consider that, to some extent, the need for accuracy and to bypass the ideological sphere of politics is paramount if the military is to be effective.
Documents such as this hold weight when it comes to shaping the way forward. The technological advantage of the West is reducing and innovation in advanced technologies is increasingly taking place in the private sector.
So revealing these challenges can affect the rest of society by infecting the way in which the future is seen, and how we go about dealing with it. Alternatively, perhaps we should see it as a rallying call to wrestle this dystopian future from techno-regressive doom-peddlers.
While the authors tells us “war is inherently a human activity whose character is determined by politics, strategy, society and technology”, and that “humans will continue to be central to the decision-making process”, they don’t provide us with answers beyond the problems.
All the while, a future in which decisions are decided by cyborgs, robots, and every slab of networked cybernetic organism in between, could find us waring with “less emphasis on emotions, passion and chance”.
We may find humanity living in a reality that even the most dystopian amongst us would struggle to have dreamt up.