Credit: World Economic Forum/IDG News Service
A cloud of 3D-printed drones big enough to bring down the latest U.S. stealth fighter, the F35, was just one of the combat scenarios evoked in a discussion of the future of warfare at the World Economic Forum in Davos on Wednesday.
Much of the discussion focused on the changes computers are bringing to the battlefield, including artificial intelligence and autonomous systems -- but also the way the battlefield is coming to computing, with cyberwar, and social media psyops an ever more real prospect.
Former U.S. Navy fighter pilot Mary Cummings, now director of the Humans and Autonomy Lab at Duke University, delivered the first strike.
"The barrier to entry to drone technology is so low that everyone can have one, and if the Chinese go out and print a million copies of a drone, a very small drone, and put those up against an F35 and they go into the engine, you basically obviate what is a very expensive platform," she said.
Drones could not only defeat the F35, on which the U.S. is spending what Cummins called "a ridiculous amount of money," but also replace them, she said.
"ISIS can go out now and print drones with a 3D printer, can print thousands of drones with a 3D printer at very low cost, and arm them with conventional weapons or biological weapons for example, and basically result in much more devastation than an F35 in a surgical strike could cause," she said.
That gave Dutch Minister of Defense Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert pause for thought. "As I placed an order for I don't know how many F35s, I just wonder if you could advise me whether I should continue or not?" she asked Cummings.
If the perceived value of an F35 is falling, though, so too is its cost. "The price is dropping, as I understood last week from Lockheed Martin,"Hennis-Plasschaert said.
In the Netherlands, there is a hot debate on the use of autonomous weapons, according to Hennis-Plasschaert. "It's important that the deployment of such weapons must always involve meaningful human control," she said. On the flip side, future enemies may not feel the same way: "We may face self-learning systems that are able to modify their own rules of conduct, and so there's this ethical question."
That's not the only ethical question governments will need to answer, though.
With war no longer just about territorial control, "we run the risk of cyberspace being the battle space in the future," Hennis-Plasschaert said.
Agreeing on limits to such conflicts will be difficult, as there is insufficient cooperation between governments at the moment.
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