Interview: Peter Singer, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation who specialises in …

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Australian Broadcasting Corporation

Broadcast: 13/08/2015

Reporter: Tony Jones,

Tony Jones speaks with Peter Singer about his science fiction thriller ‘Ghost Fleet’ which has been used by the Pentagon to assess possible defence scenarios.


TONY JONES, PRESENTER: Biological attacks on a global scale – that’s just one aspect of possible future warfare. Now one of America’s pre-eminent futurists has taken his practical knowledge and used it to write a science fiction thriller. It’s called Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War and it’s so scarily plausible, the Pentagon uses its scenarios to get its planners thinking. Peter Singer is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. He specialises in forecasting future military trends and he joins us now in Washington.

Thanks for being there.


TONY JONES: Now, in writing Ghost Fleet did you conclude that the future wars you’ve been writing about and talking about for so long seem so much like science fiction, you might as well turn it into a thriller?

PETER SINGER: In many ways. And I think there’s a parallel to the period around World War I where you had all sorts of science fictions back then, aeroplanes, submarines, tanks, that came true. It’s the same phenomena today from just where you were talking bio to artificial intelligence, robotics, electromagnetic rail guns. And so we put it in a novel to explore these what ifs and also in a sense warn of certain dangers that lie ahead, but in a manner that more people can read and find useful.

TONY JONES: OK. So in Ghost Fleet, China and the United States enter into an armed conflict, and sensibly, I suppose, they conclude that a nuclear war would probably destroy them both, so it’s a hi-tech conventional war we’re talking about here. How far into the future is it set?

PETER SINGER: We don’t put a specific date on it because if you’re thinking about, for example, the risk of a US-China war, it’s something that could happen the day after tomorrow two war planes or ships scraping paint over a reef that isn’t even on a nautical chart in the South China Sea or it could be something in the late-2020s, which is the period at which China’s both economic, political, but also military power is on pace to equal the United States and so you might see a reordering of geopolitics. And the point is that wars can start any number of ways and so we use this as a manner to kind of explore these futures, but our rule was nothing that’s imaginary. All the technology in it, even the trends, even some of the quotes that the characters say, all drawn from the real world. So it’s like a Tom Clancy novel, but it has 400 endnotes to document how it’s all real.

TONY JONES: Indeed. How does it differ, then – this future conflict, how does it differ from wars we’ve seen in the past? What are the key technologies that get used and how on Earth do you win a conflict that’s so hi-tech?

PETER SINGER: Well in many ways, no-one wins and that’s one of the lessons to take away from it. But if we’re looking at what would happen if two great powers went to war, state-on-state warfare as opposed to the kind of wars we’ve been involved in the last several years in Iraq or Afghanistan, states can fight in multi-domains, so it wouldn’t be just fights on the land, it’d also be in the air, at sea – the kind of battles that we haven’t seen for 70 years. We’d also see fights in two places that we couldn’t touch back in World War II: outer space, but also this new area, cyberspace. And then one of the challenges for nations like the US and Australia is not just that we see fighting in these locations, but we wouldn’t have the kind of technologic advantage that we’ve had in the past. Our technology wouldn’t be a generation ahead the way it’s been against, say, the Taliban out there. And then finally, with the back and forth of both hacking and new technology, you might see hi-tech, but the low tech isn’t going away and in many ways you might go back to the style of battles that you saw in World War I and World War II where, for example, what happens if GPS goes down? You may have warships that are struggling to find the other side first before they even find them.

TONY JONES: So let’s look at some of the other future tech weaponry. I mean, do you have, for example, autonomous targeting killer robots and drones or have they in your scenario been ruled out by convention?

PETER SINGER: It’s again drawing from the real world and it’s a really interesting question you raise because we’ve had this recent letter-writing campaign to try and ban work on robotics, artificial intelligence used in warfare. And yet the book documents at least 21 different use cases that are being worked on right now that range from autonomous drones, and there’s programs in the US, there’s ones in China, there’s a British one that tested in Australia, to artificial intelligence being used for battle management systems. In fact just today it was revealed that Watson, the IBM artificial intelligence program that originally won on game shows, is now being applied into intelligence. And so the point is that if we want to start arms control programs, these letter-writing campaigns are great, but they’re gonna have to deal with these very specific use cases that are being imagined for war and actually being worked on by militaries and scientists around the world.

TONY JONES: I know the Pentagon’s looked closely at this and in fact some of the scenarios they may well use to teach future planners how to work out. So what weapons are most effective? What future weapons we haven’t seen before are most effective in the future war that you’ve set out?

PETER SINGER: I think we’re going to see a suite of game-changing technologies that bring you incredible new capabilities, but also new dilemmas in terms of how you might use them. And they range from robotics of all sizes, shapes, forms, but increasingly autonomous, so both tiny ones that’ll fit in your pocket, one tested at a US Marine Corp lab, to large ones that can fly for days on end. Another is the electromagnetic rail gun. It’s a new kind of gun that doesn’t use gun powder like we have for 800 years, but it literally uses magnetism and it is a cannon that’ll be able to sling a shell over a hundred miles. Artificial intelligence is another. Finally is human performance modification – basically all the kinda drugs that we’re seeing used in places like the Olympics applied into warfare. It’s a crazy and in many ways scary new world that lies ahead for us.

TONY JONES: And when it gets down to human versus human and you actually capture one of the enemy and you want to find out what intelligence they’re holding in their heads, there are new ways, scary new ways the book talks about for forgetting inside the brain. Brain hacking, actually. Tell us a little bit about that. I’m afraid we’re nearly out of time, however.

PETER SINGER: It’s a book about World War III, but maybe the scariest scene is where they use the technology essentially to hack a brain and this is called brain-machine interface technology and it was designed to help people who’ve had some kind of – you know, suffered – paralysed to operate robotic arms using their – using their mind and in turn though it opens up a new pathway to torture. So the point is that every single technology, whether it’s a stone or a drone, has been used for both good and bad and we explore that in the book in terms of putting it in a fictional setting, but using real-world technology that’s happening right now.

TONY JONES: Peter Singer, it’s a great book. Look forward to talking to you again later on, but thank you very much for joining us again tonight.

PETER SINGER: Thank you.

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