The late Fred Ikle spent a lifetime working in the field of nuclear weapons policy (including a 7 year stint as Ronald Reagan’s Undersecretary of Defense for Policy) and what really scared him was the realization that technology would take on a life of its own. In his book Annihilation from Within: The Ultimate Threat to Nations published by Columbia University Press the year before he died in 2011, he warned that technology has for the last 250 years increasingly escaped political, cultural and religious controls. “What the standard narrative leaves out is the most important part of the saga, namely that the cultural schism is still widening — and dangerously so.” It is now poised to drag human civilization into mortal peril.
Even though the predicament is unprecedented, it was anticipated … in 1797 Goethe wrote the Sorcerer’s Apprentice … Mary Shelley wrote the novel Frankenstein… Prominent thinkers in the 19th century even anticipated that the influence of religion would vanish … Several European nations have evolved around this path. But in other regions religion became more influential and even spawned fiercely militant groups.
Technology has outpaced human values by such a margin it is now essentially out in front by itself. Yet while the Pax Americana has convinced most that science is inherently beneficent, technology is actually a blind servant and as ready to destroy as to heal. Ikle cites history and his own experience during the first nuclear age as sad proof that the genie has a mind of its own. He recounts how nuclear containment failed; how men once aware of power would seek it; and once they possessed it would use it. He holds out scant hope things will be different in the future.
The drama of the nuclear age teaches painful lessons. The continued spread of nuclear technology is turning into a disaster of unimaginable proportions.
It is moving beyond the control of any national policy or international agreements. It is the quintessential expression of mankind’s cultural split — the inability of institutions to rein in runaway science.
But the drama of the first nuclear age, Ikle argues, will pale compared to what is coming down the pipe. Biotechnology, machine-brain techniques and artificial intelligence pose far greater risks and are impossible to contain. Nor was he alone in apprehending this danger. At around the same time Annihilation from Within was published other people were reaching the same conclusion. My own the Three Conjectures in 2003; the Global Catastrophic Risk Conference at the University of Oxford which suggested a 19% chance of human extinction over the next century from technological risks like molecular nanotechnology, superintelligent AI, engineered pandemic and nuclear war,” the 2012 Cambridge Project for Existential Risk that concluded essentially the same thing. Since then Elon Musk, Bill Gates and Steven Hawking have added their warnings to the chorus. Noam Chomsky in his old age gloomily echoed biologist Ernst Mayr’s belief that “intelligence is a kind of lethal mutation” which allowed a species to expand its capability much faster than their wisdom could control it.
In Ikle’s view it is no longer a question whether Judgment Day will come but what humanity should do when it happens. “Within the next half century, perhaps within a decade or two, a nation might be vanquished, not by a foreign terrorist organization or by the military strength of a foreign power, but by a small group of domestic evildoers ruthlessly using weapons of mass destruction against their own country.” In his view the attack when it comes will be anonymous, its perpetrators refraining from presenting an obvious target and too small in number to find in weeks or even years of intensive search. He notes that in the fall of 2001 someone in the US obtained anthrax spores in weaponized form and killed over a dozen people through the US mail and that despite an intensive FBI investigation on four continents and 8,000 interviews the authorities still don’t know who did it.
The effect of millions of people dying from an unknown threat will be devastating. The calls to rein in science and impose limits to knowledge in the aftermath of the first atomic bombs would pale in comparison to the backlash from Judgment Day. In an instant technology could switch roles from man’s savior to an existential threat. The constitutional order, even civilization itself could break down, a condition its instigators would intentionally exploit.
The aspiring dictator would have built up his lawful political role by propagating a seemingly benign new ideology that appeals to youthful groups, to the nation’s underclass, and to leaderless activists … restless minorities … but initially … present himself as a compassionate, liberal “antiracist” who cares about the welfare of all minorities. … in this grim new world democracies would be a risk everywhere
All the arms control veteran could suggest to ward off this danger were contingency plans for doomsday: to provide for the continuity the government assuming few if any in Washington survived a sudden sneak attack; a mobilization plan amounting to deputizing the entire country; to author a kind of anticipatory guarantee of rights to maintain decency in the face of a breakdown in civil trust and due process. Ikle’s suggest precautions could improve but not guarantee the chances of survival.
Elon Musk’s plan to spread the human race to Mars reflects the belief that mankind has already lost the race against himself on earth. Elon’s rockets to Mars may provide a temporary haven, yet even the technologies that take man to the planets will bear the seeds of evil he carries within himself. For thousands of years man has been trying to leave the eternal questions behind in a new land, in a new paradigm.
Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?”
“I don’t know,” he replied. “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
“What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.
So Cain went out from the Lord’s presence and lived in the land of Nod, east of Eden.
But the eternal questions keep catching up with him.
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Support the Belmont Club by purchasing from Amazon through the links below.
Annihilation from Within: The Ultimate Threat to Nations, by Fred Charles Ikle. In this eloquent and impassioned book, defense expert Fred Iklé predicts a revolution in national security that few strategists have grasped; fewer still are mindful of its historic roots. We are preoccupied with suicide bombers, jihadist terrorists, and rogue nations producing nuclear weapons, but these menaces are merely distant thunder that foretells the gathering storm.
The Forgotten 500: The Untold Story of the Men Who Risked All For the Greatest Rescue Mission of World War II, by Gregory A. Freeman. This book is an account of Operation Halyard, the OSS mission to recover more than 500 American airmen shot down and trapped behind enemy lines in Yugoslavia. While local Serbian peasants gave refuge to the soldiers while they waited for rescue, once the operation started, the risks were incredible. The starving Americans had to construct a landing strip large enough for C-47 cargo planes — without tools, without alerting the Germans, and without endangering the villagers. And the cargo planes had to make it through enemy airspace and back — without getting shot down themselves.
Tank: The Definitive Visual History of Armored Vehicles, by DK. A visual history of armored vehicles, from the early tanks of World War I to present-day models, created in association with the Smithsonian Institution. It combines comprehensive photographic spreads with in-depth histories of key manufacturers and specially commissioned visual tours of the most iconic examples of their groundbreaking firepower. With two exclusive prints of a 1940 M3A1 (Stuart) and a 1940 StuG III.
Strategy: A History, Sir Lawrence Freedman, one of the world’s leading authorities on war and international politics, captures the vast history of strategic thinking, from David’s use of deception against Goliath, to the modern use of game theory in economics; from the surprisingly advanced strategy practiced in primate groups, to those of Achilles and Odysseus in The Iliad, of Sun Tzu and Machiavelli, the great military innovations of Baron Henri de Jomini and Carl von Clausewitz, the insights into corporate strategy by Peter Drucker and Alfred Sloan, and the work of leading social scientists working on strategy today. He tackles the core issue at the heart of strategy – whether it is possible to manipulate and shape our environment rather than simply become the victim of forces beyond one’s control – and emerges with a picture of strategy through time – and inherently unpredictable circumstances – that is fluid and flexible.
For a list of books most frequently purchased by readers, visit my homepage.
Did you know that you can purchase some of these books and pamphlets by Richard Fernandez and share them with your friends? They will receive a link in their email and it will automatically give them access to a Kindle reader on their smartphone, computer or even as a web-readable document.
The War of the Words, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres
Rebranding Christianity, or why the truth shall make you free
The Three Conjectures, reflections on terrorism and the nuclear age
Storming the Castle, why government should get small
No Way In at Amazon Kindle. Fiction. A flight into peril, flashbacks to underground action.
Storm Over the South China Sea, how China is restarting history in the Pacific
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