There is a need to speculate on how the international order will be changed, if at all, by critical technologies
Would an over-reliance on like-minded partnerships result in the splintering of technology norms, standards and rules? This remains a key question as we delve into one of the key themes of CyFy 2021, ‘The Big Pause: Reclaiming our Tech Futures’.
Drawing insights from two research projects at the Centre for International Security Studies, Project Q, Peace and Security in a Quantum Age; and Quantum Meta-Ethics, Normative Frameworks, Best Practices and Effective Accords for Emerging Quantum Technologies, we can breakdown ‘Tech Future’, by defining it by two events, past and recent, that might provide some useful lessons on the making, and unmaking, of ‘like-minded partnerships’ for shaping the global governance of critical technologies. The first event is the 20th anniversary of 9/11, which coincided with the departure of Western forces from Afghanistan. It is worth remembering how in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, a global coalition was formed to counter jihadist terrorism, including even formerly unfriendly actors like Russia, China, and Iran. Contrast this near-universal state of ‘like-mindedness’ to what happened three years later, when the US, failing to secure a UN consensus, attempted to form a ‘coalition of the willing’ for the invasion of Iraq. In this case, the ‘like-minded’ was reduced to an Anglophone club—plus Poland and several lesser states—in which the state of dependency were more of a factor than state of mind. We know the rest: The shock and awe of a superior technology led to the quick defeat of Iraq, but the triumphal promise of peace and freedom failed to take hold. A ‘Forever War’ ensued, in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Yemen, the Sahel and beyond, including terrorist attacks in Europe and elsewhere. As the last US planes left Kabul, the price tag stood at US $8 trillion dollars, 9,29,000 killed, and 38 million war refugees and displaced persons.
The second event is the recent televised announcement by Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States of a new trilateral security partnership, aka ‘AUKUS’. Headlines featured Australia’s breaking of a US $66-billion contract with the French in favour of nuclear-powered submarine technology from the US and UK. The partnership itself was a more expansive version of the Anglophone “special relationship” forged, in the words of President Biden, in “the trench fighting in World War I, the island hopping of World War II, during the frigid winters in Korea, and the scorching heat of the Persian Gulf.” In the context of AUKUS, like-minded was congruent with a shared willingness “to take on the threats of the 21st century, just as we did in the 20th century: Together.” A much broader commitment was lost in the media spasm over the nuclear submarines and French charges of ‘back-stabbing’ by perfidious Anglo-Saxons. At the virtual press conference, Biden spelt out a strategic partnership ‘enhanced’ by collaborative innovations in critical technologies; he even dropped the Q-word:
“AUKUS will bring together our sailors, our scientists, and our industries to maintain and expand our edge in military capabilities and critical technologies, such as cyber, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies, and undersea domains.”
These two events beg the question: Are the ‘like-minded’ once again going back to the future, seeking to find in emerging critical technologies an ‘edge’ against new global uncertainties and threats? And, to name the elephant missing from the virtual press conference, to hedge against China? If so, what kind of new thinking and global governance might shape the trajectory of new critical technologies toward peaceful competition rather than military conflict?
As is often the case with rapid technological change, ethics, politics, and governance lag behind, with the potential for social harm, economic inequalities, and geopolitical instability. New rules are needed to address the promise as well as predicament of critical technologies like cyber, artificial intelligence, and quantum
As is often the case with rapid technological change, ethics, politics, and governance lag behind, with the potential for social harm, economic inequalities, and geopolitical instability. New rules are needed to address the promise as well as predicament of critical technologies like cyber, artificial intelligence, and quantum. A ‘like-minded partnership’ requires the building of a consensus on what constitutes moral or immoral behaviour, good or bad standards, and productive or destructive applications for emerging critical technologies. And just as no single technology, event, or state will define the future, no single normative or political framework can be applied to all actors and all critical technologies across all stages of development.
There is a need to speculate on how the international order will be changed, if at all, by critical technologies. Perhaps uni-, bi-, or multipolar configurations of power in the past are already giving way to a new global heteropolarity, composed of a wide range of different actors, varying in identity, interests, and strength, who are capable of producing profound global effects through the application—indeed, by the very definition—of critical technologies.
Now into the sixth year of Project Q, a strong case can be made that the most critical of the emerging technologies will be quantum computing, control, communication, and intelligence (QC3I). It stands at the apex not only because it has the potential to merge and exponentially increase the extant powers of cyber, artificial intelligence, surveillance, sensing and much more. Quantum also fundamentally challenges the Newtonian-Hobbesian principles of causality, prediction, and an observer-independent reality that shore up a moribund geopolitical order.
When tech futures go quantum, so too must our worldviews and world politics.
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James Der Derian is a Director Centre for International Security Studies The University of SydneyRead More +