Mishandled biological weapons, poor nuclear power containment, and faulty AI systems all have the potential for devastating worldwide effects whether its global pandemic, radiation exposure, or poor missile targeting.
And often times, investment in these advances are justified by their deterrence value. “Well if we have the technological advantage, it’s a deterrence against any enemy using force because we would win,” is usually how the argument goes. But as former Navy Secretary Dr. Richard Danzig stated in his new report “[Technological] superiority is not synonymous with security.”
The “introduction … of technologies will produce accidents, emergent effects, and sabotage,” he stated in the report. “In sum, … the American national security establishment will lose control of what it creates.”
By building a capability it will “almost always will help [your adversaries]” acquire the same capability, said Dr. Jeff Alstott, Program Manager at the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA), at the Center for American Security. “Having this race condition, where we’re trying to always be technologically superior, is all well and good if you can always stay superior, but the fact you’re running faster also means that your adversaries can draft off you.”
And at a time when there is increasing concern in Washington about great-power conflict with China and Russia in the National Defense Strategy, and some economists estimating that the Chinese economy, in terms of GDP, will far outweigh the US’s by 2050, the US promise of superiority is dwindling.
Following years of US hegemony, “Now we see a … world where technology diffused,” Danzig said. “Our risks [of catastrophe] … are amplified by the fact that proliferation places great destructive power in the hands of others whose safety priorities and standards are likely to be less ambitious and less well funded than ours.”
Furthermore, because of the nature of the global economy and the bulk of R&D happening in the private sector, according to Alstott, “I would struggle to see it happening very often where there is a breakout or a big advance that wouldn’t quickly spill out into other countries,” he said, whether that’s a nation-state or a terrorist group.
But at times, not even governments have shown complete competency in mitigating these risks. As Danzig points out in the report, there have been occasions where atomic bombs have fallen of off US airplanes and studies that suggest the H1N1 outbreak started from a government laboratory test tube.
Bottom line, Danzig argues, as the defense industry and governments, here and abroad, continue to search for technological superiority, there needs to be more conversation and policies in place to curb the potential of disaster.