The Power of Moore's Law in a World of Geotechnology

January 2, 2013 Topic: TechnologySociety

The Power of Moore's Law in a World of Geotechnology

Mini Teaser: Huge technological leaps are coming, and they're already creating a new realm of interstate competition.

by Author(s): Marc GoodmanParag Khanna

ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE (AI) also has progressed beyond search-engine results and customized movie and book recommendations. Automatic pilot systems on aircraft (including military planes) and stock trading in global financial markets are guided and controlled by the scripted algorithms that are the building blocks of artificial intelligence. Human beings increasingly find that they cannot keep pace with the vast volumes of data to be processed. So they are turning to artificial intelligence to act in their stead.

Machine learning and automated systems also are on an exponential growth track, with notable implications for economic and national security. Consider the May 2010 “flash crash,” in which the Dow Jones industrial average plunged about one thousand points, then recovered within minutes. It was the biggest one-day point decline on an intraday basis in history—and was caused by a predetermined AI-based trading algorithm. With companies such as Narrative Science using AI to produce market-price predictions and sell them to investors, algorithms now are making decisions based on computational predictions, potentially sowing the seeds for a much greater flash crash. With billions of dollars to be made by executing trades nanoseconds ahead of the competition, increasing numbers of financial transactions will be turned over to AI bots, which will have an untold impact on global economic markets.

As computer processing power increases exponentially, the number of expert systems with key links to our daily activities will proliferate. This poses a threat to national security from state or nonstate actors capable of exploiting the logic behind these fast-acting, automated decision engines. For example, Google’s self-driving cars use AI to sense objects near the vehicle and in turn mimic the decisions made by human drivers. Once a city or a nation switches to fully autonomous vehicles, the underlying technology could be exploited to attack a nation’s critical transportation infrastructure.

The U.S. Defense Department is financing studies of autonomous armed robots that could find and destroy targets on their own, with AI-decision support systems deciding whether or not to fire their weapons. As these systems proliferate, legions of robotic weapons may use AI to decide whether and how to engage with one another, with little if any time for human intervention. As Moore’s Law advances, computer-enabled artificial intelligence will outpace the speed and processing power of our mammalian brains. Those nation-states and nonstate actors capable of harnessing the power of AI more effectively than their rivals will possess an undeniable strategic advantage on real and virtual battlefields.

The arena of advanced manufacturing is also receiving more attention for its economic and security implications. A recent paper by the Atlantic Council focuses on the rise of 3-D printing devices and their potential impact on supply chains, assembly platforms, intellectual property, and the future of exports for China and America. 3-D manufacturing uses software programs and computer-aided design to print not just in colored ink but also metal, plastic and even concrete, using three-dimensional layering techniques to “print” objects or prototypes from car parts to toys. Goods that had been imported for decades could soon be manufactured locally at massive scale, leading to dramatic upheavals in global trading patterns. Often this technology is heralded for potentially reviving American manufacturing—but a massive decline in Chinese exports would certainly also mean a sudden downward shift in Chinese investment in U.S. treasuries, sending interest rates dramatically up. When geotechnology, geoeconomics and geopolitics come together, an apparent victory in one area may have unintended consequences in another.

One remarkable aspect of 3-D printers and other forms of advanced manufacturing is that the devices are moving toward total self-replication. Today most 3-D printers can print more than 50 percent of the parts required to make another 3-D printer—a percentage that is increasing rapidly. Once 3-D devices can not only produce weapons but also replicate themselves, the security and economic ramifications will escalate.

In the realm of nanotechnology, impossibly small nanosized machines will be created at the atomic and molecular scale, driving significant advances in material sciences, medicine and warfare. Molecular manufacturing would enable molecular assemblers, which are nanosized machines, to reorder matter itself at the atomic scale—also allowing for their self-replication. For example, toxic nanoparticles could be absorbed into the body of human beings and animals through the skin, lungs, ears and eyes, and given their size could likely evade the natural defenses of mammalian immune systems. Many governments around the world (especially the United States, China and Japan) have created nanotechnology research centers to study the national-security implications of such technology. As K. Eric Drexler, a noted nanotechnology expert, observed, Molecular manufacturing will bring a revolution in military affairs greater than the transition from hand-made spears to mass-produced guns. It is unwise to be on the wrong side of such a technology gap.”

THOUGH IT may not seem obvious, biology is transforming itself into an information technology. Subtle genetic changes that took millennia to evolve can now be engineered in a laboratory. DNA is the original computer operating system, and cells are the machines that execute the code. Rather than using ones and zeros, biology employs base pairs of adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine to code the software of life. In the twentieth century, we discovered how to read DNA; the twenty-first century will be about writing the code ourselves, opening up phenomenal new opportunities to create new and synthetic forms of life that will have a major impact on our economy, food availability, energy needs and global security.

But the revolution in biology is unfolding at a pace three to five times fasterthan that of Moore’s Law. The first time a human genome was decoded and sequenced, in 2000, the cost was $300 million. By 2007 the cost had dropped to $1 million, and in 2011 it was just $5,000. The implications of the superexponential developments in biology are staggering, with every living thing on the planet likely to be sequenced and the technology of synthetic biology to be completely democratized. As the price of research and equipment drops precipitously, technologies previously available only to the most powerful of nations are becoming rapidly accessible to even nonstate actors. Indeed, the 2008 report of the Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism, chaired by former senators Bob Graham and Jim Talent, warned that a biological attack within the United States was deemed probable before 2013 and specifically highlighted the dangers of synthetic biology:

***As DNA synthesis technology continues to advance at a rapid pace, it will soon become feasible to synthesize nearly any virus whose DNA sequence has been decoded . . . as well as artificial microbes that do not exist in nature. This growing ability to engineer life at the molecular level carries with it the risk of facilitating the development of new and more deadly biological weapons.***

Governments around the world have recognized the transformational power of biology, and thirty-six nations have invested in synthetic-biology research. Nowhere are these efforts more advanced or portentous than at China’s Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI). Founded in 1999, BGI is the world’s largest producer of genetic code, sequencing the equivalent of over fifteen thousand human genomes a year and harboring more sequencing capacity than all the labs in the United States combined. Given its aging population and lopsided dependency ratio resulting from its one-child policy, might China undertake society-wide enhancements? Those with the greatest capacity to encode and decode the software of life will have significant economic, political and military advantages.

Clearly, advances in both synthetic biology and genomics will have a profound impact on society and national security. While the risk of biowarfare or chemically based terrorist attacks has been widely discussed since the Aum Shinrikyo cult’s 1995 sarin-gas attack on the Tokyo subway, much less attention has been paid to the potential for bioenhancement technologies to alter national demographics and the military balance of power. For example, the Pentagon has invested in “supersoldier” technologies such as advanced prosthetics and medical transplant capabilities, which make it possible to implant animal tissue into humans to speed injury recovery times. For its part, China’s BGI could accelerate the ability of government laboratories to develop society-enhancing therapies and interventions that could improve life expectancy and worker productivity. With a regulatory environment favorable to both stem cell research and human trials, China and other Asian nations could develop breakthrough gene therapies far more rapidly than the West.

It is also important to consider the impact of one exponential technology on another. For example, developments in robotics will not occur in isolation but will be enhanced by AI, potentially enabling swarms of robots to carry out attacks in unison. Bioengineering and nanomanufacturing could combine to create superfast and cheap nanocomputers, as well as superproductive renewable-energy resources such as synthetic biofuels. Synthetic biology and 3-D manufacturing will come together to mass-produce organic matter such as in vitro meat: food for the world. The synergies among these exponential scientific developments will be a driving geotechnological force that could further accelerate geoeconomic competition and geopolitical change. The appearance of exponential technologies—and their intersection with each other—promises an age full of disruptions: the exponential of exponentials.

Image: Pullquote: While foreign leaders from David Cameron to Dmitri Medvedev have come to prioritize Silicon Valley as a stop on their state visits, Washington’s politicians seldom leverage the strategic dimensions of their own national technological-innovation hub. Essay Types: Essay