This page contains the current draft of the full text of Chapter 7 of RAFT 2035. All content is subject to change.
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7. International conflict
Goal 7 of RAFT 2035 is that risks of international military conflict will have been reduced by at least 90%.
Goal 7 can be seen as an international version of Goal 6. Both these goals address the risks to human flourishing from violence and other crime. Goal 6 is for a 90% reduction of crime at local and national levels. Goal 7 considers the threat of violence and warfare at the international level.
In a world with ever more people having access to ever more powerful weapons, escalating conflict could bring civilisation to an end. Alongside possible attacks from other countries, we also need to consider threats from terrorist groups, international crime syndicates, and other sub-state organisations.
These groups may initiate actions for reasons we would judge to be deluded, misinformed, hasty, suicidal, or mad in some other way. However, these actions may still take place, despite the various sorts of insanity that might be involved. It would be like a repeat of the cascade of unintended consequences that led Europe in 1914 into the horrors of the first world war, following a period in which many people thought, wrongly as it turned out, that large-scale war had become a thing of the past.
However, the increased spread of nuclear technology, chemical weapons, biological pathogens, and cyberattack capabilities, means that a similar cascade of actions in our time could have consequences that are even more devastating than the carnage of the first world war.
This state of affairs is sometimes given the semi-humorous name “Moore’s Law of Mad Scientists”, on a suggestion from Eliezer Yudkowsky:
The minimum IQ required to destroy the world drops by one point every 18 months.
This is a threat that deserves very serious attention, to prevent international society from sleepwalking into disaster.
One response to the threat of attack is to increase spending on defence budgets. Unfortunately, this would mean that significant portions of national resources are tied up in military forces, preventing their deployment on other uses that would be more productive. Moreover, when a potential attacker perceives that it is facing stronger defences, it can prompt further spending on increased aggressive capability, ratcheting an arms race. Any short-term perceived gains in security would likely be illusory.
It would be far better to deescalate current and future threat situations, through measures to build and sustain mutual trust. That is what RAFT envisions.
One factor that can reduce pressures towards conflict is an increased general understanding of the scale of abundance that lies ahead, as humanity takes fuller advantage of green technologies, nanotechnology, robotics, artificial intelligence, and other technological breakthroughs. These technologies have the potential to allow every person on earth to have a significantly higher standard of living than was available even to royalty only a few decades ago. This understanding should reduce the pressures on different groups to compete against each other for a larger slice of the pie. The pie will be large enough for everyone.
However, the mere fact of material abundance is insufficient, by itself, to prevent conflict and strife. There are other causes of conflict, including differences in ideology, inertia from runaway arms races, the perception of inflammatory insults, and other aspects of emotional immaturity. These are all factors that need to be handled better. Happily, these are all factors that can be handled better, via RAFT initiatives.
Rejuvenating international liaisons
Multilateral institutions can help counter these forces, but today’s United Nations and related organisations are falling far short of their potential in this regard. These organisations are overdue rejuvenation, starting with an update for the documents that define their purpose and operation. This refresh will clarify the potential beneficial role of the United Nations and related organisations in the world of the 2020s and beyond.
Regular exchanges between members of different groups from around the world, if skilfully facilitated, can also play an important role in deepening rapport and building trust. In the past, these exchanges involved international travel, but technologies such as immersive video conferencing can produce similar results at much lower costs. These online gatherings can and should be extended, to help more people escape from the mental shackles of constricting ideologies and backward-looking group-think.
International trustable monitoring
As in the case of Goal 6 – the reduction of crime by at least 90% – success with Goal 7 will require improved systems of trustable monitoring. This can include improved AI systems that highlight potential aggressive intent or potential pathways of unintended conflict escalation. Again as for Goal 6, these systems will need to become “above suspicion”, being respected by all parties. If their design and operation is transparent, such an outcome is more likely.
One particular challenge that international trustable monitoring needs to address is the risk of more ever powerful weapons systems being placed under autonomous control by AI systems. New weapons systems, such as swarms of miniature drones, increasingly change their configuration at speeds faster than human reactions can follow. This will lead to increased pressures to transfer control of these systems, at critical moments, from human overseers to AI algorithms. Each individual step along the journey from total human oversight to minimal human oversight might be justified, on grounds of a balance of risk and reward. However, that series of individual decisions adds up to an overall change that is highly dangerous, given the potential for unforeseen defects or design flaws in the AI algorithms being used.
Note that there can be agreement on at least some elements of trustable monitoring between groups that harbour considerable suspicion and antagonism towards each other. Consider how all commercial airliners contain a black box recording device. Rather than regarding this device as “snooping”, members of the airline industry understand the benefits to everyone from good records being made, which can be consulted in the event of airplane accidents, in order to improve aircraft safety. International agreements on air traffic control meet the same general pattern. Likewise the organisation of international post, international sports competitions, and lots more besides. The challenge will be to apply relevant positive principles from these fields in the more unstable field of international military conflict.
To accelerate progress with Goal 7, two targets for 2025 are proposed:
- To agree basic principles of the design and operation of systems for “international trustable monitoring”. Among other points, this should highlight measures to constrain any runaway escalation of adoption of lethal autonomous weapons.
- To establish a commitment from a majority of the countries in the United Nations to an updated version of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which takes fully into account the remarkable transformational nature of the technologies highlighted in RAFT. It may take some time, subsequently, for this commitment to be backed up by action, but an agreement on basic principles will at least provide a start.
As mentioned, one way to build trust across international borders is to increase the flow of personnel across these borders – in a managed way which avoids destabilising any of the countries involved. What this could mean in practice is the subject of the next chapter.
For more information
- The 2019 book by Paul Scharre, Army of None: Autonomous Weapons and the Future of War
- A 2018 discussion between Paul Scharre, Stuart Russell, Anthony Aguirre, Ariel Conn, and Max Tegmark, Why You Should Fear “Slaughterbots”
- The 2013 book by Ian Goldin, Divided Nations: Why Global Governance Is Failing, and What We Can Do about It