The future of terrorism

January 28, 2019 11:40
The greater a society becomes automated, the more vulnerable it would be to cyber attacks. Photo: Reuters

In a recent article, I discussed the 1989 essay "The End of History?" by the acclaimed American political scientist Francis Fukuyama, in which he warned of the ramifications of the developing biotechnology for the future of mankind.

The ramifications he pointed out would not only turn conventional ethical and moral values on their head, but may also affect the way great powers compete for global predominance in the future, such as bringing about a completely new type of warfare and a new form of terrorist threat.

For instance, as artificial intelligence (AI) has already come of age, it won’t be too long before robot soldiers finally become a reality. The technology needed to make miniature combat robots has already emerged.

Meanwhile, as camera drones have become increasingly affordable and popular, it won’t be difficult for people to use them for military or terrorist purposes.

Global online retail giant Amazon is already delivering some of its goods to customers using drones within the United States, while the technology of killing someone far away by using GPS-guided drones fitted with facial recognition devices and loaded with robots and explosives has also been in operation for quite some time.

Human beings themselves are moving toward becoming completely “digitized”, and if that happens, such technology may enable them to launch precision attacks with even more deadly accuracy.

By that time, the introduction of mass-produced combat machines may not only greatly lower the cost of waging wars, but may also substantially avoid collateral damage and civilian casualties.

Perhaps in the future, assassins are likely to become digitalized as well.

Apart from paving the way for new weapons, AI may also make future cyber warfare even more surreal.

As we all know, the greater a society becomes automated, the more vulnerable it would be to cyber attacks.

When power grids, factories, public transport, communication systems, nuclear power plants or even arsenals of one country or even the entire world have become networked, the outcome of future wars will be determined even before any conventional military campaign takes place in the real world.

In fact, even prior to the dawn of the AI era, state-perpetrated cyber warfare has already been secretly underway around the world.

In 2012, for example, it is said that the US and Israeli governments jointly launched a cyber attack against Iran in order to sabotage its nuclear program by using a secretly developed computer virus known as the “Stuxnet Worm”, apart from making use of diplomatic means and political pressure.

The virus reportedly infected Iran’s computer system, and thereby ruined the country’s high-speed uranium centrifuges.

In the meantime, it is alleged that North Korea has hackers who use computer viruses to extort foreign currencies from a number of countries or institutions.

What is worrisome about the rapid development of such cyber technology is that it does not need state-level support. When convenient, cheap and highly mobile tools of war surface in the world, traditional strong powers, despite having nuclear weapons, cannot even fully have a full grasp of everything.

As we can see, the biggest beneficiaries of the dark side of technology are not the traditional great powers or sovereign states, but terrorists and extremist groups, who will have no difficulty in gaining access to high-end automated weapons either in the black market or through spy infiltrations.

If this scenario takes place, one can probably expect a future version of the Islamic State, which, having managed to master such technologies, would be able to mount ethnic or religious cleansings more effectively.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Jan 15

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal