Will closer ties between the Pentagon, the world’s largest military machine, and Silicon Valley, arguably the world’s greatest engine for technology innovation, make the world safer?

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Darpa, recently sponsored a three-day conference in St. Louis with the cute title, “Wait. What? A Future Technology Forum.” Darpa organized the conference to “consider current and future advances in the physical and information sciences, engineering and mathematics through the lens of current and future national and global security dynamics, to reveal potentially attractive avenues of technological pursuit and to catalyze non-obvious synergies among participants.”

The conference “is part of a broader effort by the Pentagon to tap into the ingenuity of Silicon Valley,” John Markoff reports in The New York Times. The Pentagon recently opened an office in Silicon Valley called Defense Innovation Unit-Experimental, or DIU-X. The office says its mission is to help the Pentagon be “more permeable to sources of disruptive change that would keep us at par or ahead of the Nation’s adversaries.”

Markoff quoted Darpa’s director, Arati Prabhakar, a physicist and “longtime Silicon Valley venture capitalist,” extolling “what I certainly treasure about Silicon Valley--this notion of technology as a force that can change the world and make a better world… I think technology is equally core to national security.”

The conference featured a talk on optogenetics and a demonstration of devices implanted in the brain to restore functions in disabled subjects. As I have reported previously, Pentagon officials have expressed interest in the potential of neural implants not only to treat wounded soldiers but also to enhance healthy ones. Yes, we’re talking bionic soldiers.

Markoff did not quote anyone who questioned the whether the U.S. should aggressively pursue “disruptive” new defense technologies. A group of prominent engineers and scientists, including Elon Musk, Steve Wozniak and Stephen Hawking, have called for a ban on “autonomous weapons” that employ artificial intelligence and can kill independently of human oversight.

But given all the damage that can be done—and is being done--by human-controlled weapons (see for example my recent post on children in Syria and elsewhere killed by U.S.-led forces), the petition of Musk et al. is far too narrow and futuristic in its focus.

More serious questions have been raised about the militarization of U.S. research by two recent speakers at my school, Stevens Institute of Technology. Both speakers are affiliated with Yale. One is management professor Paul Bracken, who gave a talk last spring titled “Silicon Valley and the Pentagon:  Disruptive Innovation and National Security.”

Calling the Pentagon the “mother of all VC [venture capital] funds,” Bracken noted that a “second Silicon Valley” of high-tech firms has sprung up around Washington, D.C., to feed the Pentagon’s appetite for innovative technologies.

“We have more technologies coming online today in the military than at any time,” Bracken said. “It’s not just that cyber-warfare is a big deal, and drones are a really big deal--it’s that you have all these technologies with enormous national security implications, and they’re all coming on at the same time.” Bracken added that “the real question is what systems will help improve U.S. security, not just kill or disrupt the bad guys?”

Innovation is especially rapid in what Bracken called “targeted killing” technologies, which combine software that can recognize faces and license plates with drones and other weaponry. The United States is hardly alone in pursuing these technologies. Bracken suggested that if target-killing technologies are deployed by nuclear-armed nations, such as India and Pakistan, they might make pre-emptive strikes more tempting. “In principle you could decapitate the leadership of another country,” Bracken said. Technology is “racing ahead of strategy. We don’t know where this stuff is going.”

The other speaker at my school is Wendell Wallach, a scholar at Yale University’s Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics. This week, Wallach spoke at Stevens about his new book, A Dangerous Master: How to Keep Technology from Slipping Beyond Our Control, which considers how to curb the risks of emerging technologies.

Wallach writes that the U.S. “is the world’s leading driver of an accelerating and ever-escalating arms race… The logic of staying ahead or keeping pace with potential adversaries rests on the dangers of a weak defense and contentions that weaker foes will be intimidated by one’s power, adversaries with similar strength will be restrained by mutually assured destruction, and technological supremacy will prevail. These three positions are flawed. Al Qaeda and ISIS militants were not cowed by the U.S.’s overwhelming military supremacy. Mutually assured destruction did not stop the former U.S.S.R. from keeping pace in the nuclear arms race.”

As I have reported, the U.S. deployment of military drones has triggered an international arms race in drones that may ultimately undermine U.S. as well as global security. When the Pentagon talks about “disruptive” technologies, it doesn’t mean cool new smart-phone apps; it means cool new ways to kill people. The alliance of the Pentagon and Silicon Valley should make us all ask, “Wait. What?”

Response from Rick Weiss, Director, Strategic Communications, Science & Technology Policy Advisor, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA): Thanks for covering our Future Technologies Forum in St. Louis. One clarification: If DARPA was hosting our biggest meeting of the year to get better connected to the Valley we would have held it out West! It's true the Department of Defense and Secretary of Defense in particular are talking a lot these days about the benefit of (re)building bridges to the Valley, and DARPA recognizes the benefits of that relationship as well. But really, “Wait, What?” was all about making connections with people who we DON'T normally commune with. We were thrilled that fully 50 percent of the attendees had never before made contact with DARPA (we asked) - which was a major ambition for us in organizing Wait, What? By the way, most of the presentations are available on DARPA's YouTube channel. 

Further Reading:

Should Scientists and Engineers Resist Taking Military Money?

Would Global Violence Decline Faster If U.S. Was Less Militaristic?

Neil deGrasse Tyson, Please Speak Out about Militarization of Science!

Why You Should Care about Pentagon Funding of Obama's Brain Initiative.

Why drones should make you afraid. Very afraid.