A year ago historians of technology Lee Vinsel and Andrew Russell, my colleagues at Stevens Institute of Technology, questioned our culture’s adulation of “innovation” in an essay in Aeon. They titled the essay “Hail the Maintainers,” because the flip side of innovation veneration is neglect of maintenance needed to keep societies running. Science and technology scholars explored this theme further at “The Maintainers,” a conference held at Stevens (which I reported on here). Although Andy left Stevens last summer and Lee is leaving soon, they organized a follow-up conference, “The Maintainers II,” held at Stevens this week (April 6-9). Below is a 10-minute talk I’m giving on military innovation.—John Horgan
The late psychedelic philosopher Terence McKenna was one of my favorite thinkers. Epic doses of DMT and psilocybin helped him figure out the meaning of existence: The world was designed to produce innovation for our delectation.
Maybe innovation is a divine creative principle. Who knows? But Andy Russell and Lee Vinsel are right: innovation-worship has gotten out of hand. Our obsession with novelty fuels the replication crisis in science and the high costs of health care, among other problems.
Today, I’ll focus on an especially insidious kind of innovation, involving war. I used to live across the Hudson River from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. It has a museum that documents, proudly, our increasingly ingenious methods of killing each other. They range from spears and crossbows up through machine guns, tanks and Fat Man, the bomb that devastated Nagasaki.
Seeking Killer Apps
The U.S. is by far the world’s dominant arms producer, peddler and innovator, and it’s always trying to extend its lead. The Pentagon has been reaching out to high-tech companies in Silicon Valley and elsewhere for help in creating “disruptive” weaponry. The so-called Defense Innovation Unit-Experimental, DIU-X, has opened offices in Palo Alto, Boston and Austin to solicit proposals from companies and universities. Here’s how it describes its mission:
“DIU-X continuously iterates on how best to identify and contract novel innovation… with the ultimate goal of accelerating this technology into the hands of the men and women in uniform.” The Defense Department isn't content with slaughtering the English language. Here are a few killer apps I find especially worrisome.
First, drones. The U.S. has deployed a variety of drones for spying and killing. They range from the Global Hawk, with a 130-foot wingspan, to the Switchblade, a baguette-size drone that packs a grenade-size explosive. Research is under way on micro-drones that mimic birds and bugs and can be released in swarms.
The U.S. has catalyzed an international arms race. According to security analyst Peter Singer of the New America Foundation, scores of countries and groups have deployed drones, and many--notably China, Russia and Israel--have their own drone industries.
A few years ago, on assignment for National Geographic, I flew a military-grade drone with an eight-foot wingspan. I almost crashed it, but soon any idiot will be able to fly a drone. Just click a location on your hand-held map display, and the drone will fly there and spy on it or blow it up. Drones are being equipped with software that can recognize faces and license plates.
In short, drones are making assassinations easier to carry out. Is that good innovation?
Brain Science and Bionic Soldiers
Second example: brain science. In his book Mind Wars, bioethicist Jonathan Moreno of the University of Pennsylvania documents the military’s long-standing interest in "neuroweapons.” Decades ago, the U.S. explored the potential of psychedelics like LSD and BZ for interrogating, brainwashing and disabling enemies.
The Pentagon is more eager than ever to exploit brain science, according to Moreno. In 2011, the DOD spent more than $350 million on cognitive neuroscience, and that doesn’t count black-budget spending.
The Defense Department has provided roughly half the funding for Obama’s federal Brain Initiative. The initiative supports research on the brain’s software, or neural code, and on technologies like optogenetics, an implantable method for manipulating neurons.
If scientists crack the neural code, all sorts of sci-fi scenarios become possible, including technologies for mind-reading, mind-control and mind-enhancement. As a U.S. Army publication put it recently: “Advances in brain science could lead to improvements in performance and decision making, changing the way soldiers fight in the near future.”
Far from questioning the wisdom of such research, leading neuroscientists encouraged colleagues to jump on the defense gravy train in the 2009 report Opportunities in Neuroscience for Future Army Applications. Authors include Floyd Bloom and Michael Gazzaniga, former members of the U.S. Council on Bioethics.
Weaponizing brain science could lead to bionic super-soldiers, among other disruptive innovations. How ethical is that?
A New Nuclear Arms Race
My last example involves nuclear weapons. Obama, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for envisioning the abolition of nuclear weapons, signed off on a program to upgrade our nuclear arsenal at a cost of $1 trillion over several decades. Obama sold the program as maintenance of aging facilities and weapons, but it involves plenty of innovation.
Submarine-launched nuclear warheads are being tipped with fuzes that make them more lethal to hardened targets, such as missile silos and underground command-and-control centers. According to The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, the fuzes would allow the U.S. to carry out a pre-emptive strike against Russia with less fear of retaliation.
Our upgrade will “require Russia to undertake countermeasures that would further increase the already dangerously high readiness of Russian nuclear forces.” So the U.S. modernization of its nuclear arsenal could provoke a dangerous new arms race and undermine anti-proliferation efforts. Is that good innovation?
Can Weapons Innovation Be Stopped?
Considering the stakes involved, weapons innovation has provoked little serious criticism. Yes, thousands of scientists and engineers, including Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk, have signed a letter calling for a ban on autonomous weapons. But we should be debating military innovation in general, not just killer robots.
When scholars address the issue, their criticism is often muted. In 2015 Stevens hosted a lecture by Yale management professor Paul Bracken. His talk was an awkward mixture of concern and cheerleading. He warned that arms innovation is “racing ahead of strategy,” and that novel weapons might make the world more dangerous.
But he also emphasized that the Pentagon, “the mother of all VC firms,” is providing terrific opportunities for researchers and investors. Scholars like Bracken probably worry that if they sound too dovish, they’ll hurt their chances of getting grants, consulting gigs and conference invitations.
Other scholars extol the benefits of war research, and even war itself. Economist Tyler Cowen of George Mason argues that war, or the threat thereof, improves nations’ “long-term prospects” by boosting innovation and economic growth. I find this thesis morally repulsive. It’s akin to arguing for the economic benefits of slavery.
Forget morality. From a strictly practical point of view, military innovation, even if it provides short-term advantages for the U.S., ultimately makes the world more dangerous. No society has ever maintained a monopoly on novel weapons.
I wish technology scholars would give arms innovation the scrutiny it deserves. Perhaps they can propose ways in which weapons research can be wound down, as part of a larger goal of winding down war. This issue is too urgent for scholarly neutrality.
All progress begins with wishful thinking. I wish for a future in which weapons of war exist only in museums. Wouldn’t that be a trip?
Wired for War by Peter W. Singer
Mind Wars by Jonathan Moreno
A Dangerous Master, by Wendell Wallach
The End of War by John Horgan