September 13, 2018

A Million Mistakes a Second

By Paul Scharre

Militaries around the globe are racing to build ever more autonomous drones, missiles, and cyberweapons. Greater autonomy allows for faster reactions on the battlefield, an advantage that is as powerful today as it was 2,500 years ago when Sun Tzu wrote, “Speed is the essence of war.” Today’s intelligent machines can react at superhuman speeds. Modern Chinese military academics have speculated about a coming “battlefield singularity,” in which the pace of combat eclipses human decision-making.

The consequences of humans ceding effective control over what happens in war would be profound and the effects potentially catastrophic. While the competitive advantages to be gained from letting machines run the battlefield are clear, the risks would be grave: Accidents could cause conflicts to spiral out of control.

Consider what has already happened with stock markets, where computers use algorithms to make decisions so quickly that microseconds make a difference of millions of dollars. Such trading has made brokers huge amounts of money—but has also produced extreme flash crashes that can send markets tumbling in minutes. Regulators have managed these risks by installing circuit breakers that can take a stock offline if the price moves too quickly, but battlefields lack these fail-safes. Flash crashes are bad enough; a flash war would be downright disastrous.


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