Fear of an electronic planet

Tim Stevens has written a quick piece over on his blog about the popular confusion between ‘cyberwar’ and ‘drones’. Since Tim is researching concepts associated with cyber warfare and I am researching bits and bobs associated with drones, we often find ourselves rolling our eyes at the same pieces of mis-informed commentary. For some reason, everything to do with computers gets labelled ‘information warfare’ and dumped in the same intellectual box, even though IW is out of use, a point Tim makes quite eloquently.

In my mind, one of the most interesting differences between the two fields is the fear of autonomy. Thanks to James Cameron, we know that machine autonomy will give rise to the end of civilisation as we know it, war against the machines, two decent films and some ropey sequels. Programs designed to autonomously parse information from the ‘real world’ are considered incredibly dangerous when attached to a weapons system that could deliver lethal effects. On the other hand, autonomous self replicating computer viruses are a fact of life in the computer world. If you run a computer attached to other computers, it will get infected. Even the USAF had this problem with air-gapped systems. We take one autonomous programme/system as the harbinger of doom, while we have quite accepted the other. We wake up in cold sweats about Schwarzenegger yet accept the fact that we will never, ever, live in a world free of harmful self-replicating computer programmes. The advent of Stuxnet doesn’t change that basic fact about the electronic world, for all that I’ve read on the matter, including some half-baked ideas about controlling ‘cyberweapons’, I haven’t yet encountered someone silly enough to advocate the elimination of computer viruses in the same way that people talk of eliminating robotic weapons systems. The difference in advocated solutions strikes me as odd, because the ‘nightmare scenario’ of something Stuxnet-ty causing a nuclear meltdown seems far worse than autonomous drones. Maybe people haven’t quite accepted that robotic weapons systems are already here and also here to stay.

Oh, and by the way, if war ever does go completely robotic (probably not going to happen) – my money is on South Korea for world domination in the latter half of the 21st Century.

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