There could be no more consequential decision than launching atomic weapons and possibly triggering a nuclear holocaust. President John F. Kennedy faced just such a moment during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 and, after envisioning the catastrophic outcome of a U.S.-Soviet nuclear exchange, he came to the conclusion that the atomic powers should impose tough barriers on the precipitous use of such weaponry. Among the measures he and other global leaders adopted were guidelines requiring that senior officials, not just military personnel, have a role in any nuclear-launch decision.
That was then, of course, and this is now. And what a now it is! With artificial intelligence, or AI, soon to play an ever-increasing role in military affairs, as in virtually everything else in our lives, the role of humans, even in nuclear decision-making, is likely to be progressively diminished. In fact, in some future AI-saturated world, it could disappear entirely, leaving machines to determine humanity’s fate.
This isn’t idle conjecture based on science fiction movies or dystopian novels. It’s all too real, all too here and now, or at least here and soon to be. As the Pentagon and the military commands of the other great powers look to the future, what they see is a highly contested battlefield — some have called it a “hyperwar” environment — where vast swarms of AI-guided robotic weapons will fight each other at speeds far exceeding the ability of human commanders to follow the course of a battle. At such a time, it is thought, commanders might increasingly be forced to rely on ever more intelligent machines to make decisions on what weaponry to employ when and where. At first, this may not extend to nuclear weapons, but as the speed of battle increases and the “firebreak” between them and conventional weaponry shrinks, it may prove impossible to prevent the creeping automatization of even nuclear-launch decision-making.
Such an outcome can only grow more likely as the U.S. military completes a top-to-bottom realignment intendedto transform it from a fundamentally small-war, counter-terrorist organization back into one focused on peer-against-peer combat with China and Russia. This shift was mandated by the Department of Defense in its December 2017 National Security Strategy. Rather than focusing mainly on weaponry and tactics aimed at combating poorly armed insurgents in never-ending small-scale conflicts,