Technology goes from entertainment to defense

AAugust 2022, I worked as a technology professional for 40 years. As an apprentice software engineer fresh out of college, this world of “technology” didn’t look much like ours. Computers, still rare and very expensive, had not invaded our homes.

It will take another thirty years before they turn into smartphones and colonize the ends of our arms. In the early 1980s, technology meant something big and powerful – which most often referred to something with an explicit military purpose or a direct descendant of something with an explicit military purpose.

Throughout history, technology and warfare have had a close relationship; every technological advance carries the seeds of an arms race, as civilizations scramble to master the latest advance: bronze, iron, stirrups, gunpowder, airplanes, radar – and, lately, the secrets of the atomic nucleus. World War II began with a cavalry charge in Poland, but ended in a mushroom cloud over Nagasaki.

In the early 1980s, technology meant something big and powerful.

The Cold War saw huge sums spent on developing new technologies to maintain a balance between the superpowers. In the early 1960s, my aunt spent a few years writing code for systems simulating the aerodynamics of ICBM reentry. This was what technology looked like during the forty years of the Cold War, with each side feverishly throwing resources into an accelerated arms race that ultimately bankrupted the Soviet Union – and led directly to much of the technology of our 21st century world.

The Internet remains the archetypal example of a technology originally developed for a military need: to keep US military systems well connected during a massive thermonuclear attack – which later found endless non-military uses. Its original name, ARPAnet – named after the US Department of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency – reflects this provenance. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, these technologies experienced their own “liberation”; they ended up in consumer devices.

World War II began with a cavalry charge in Poland, but ended in a mushroom cloud over Nagasaki.

Another DARPA investment focus centered on systems that could be used to simulate and visualize data collected on a three-dimensional, real-time battlefield. All modern infographics – such as those found in any smartphone, laptop or PC – have their roots in these military simulators. Some of this technology found its way into the information-rich “heads-up” displays used by fighter jet pilots – but some also made its way to NASA, where in the mid-1980s engineers had prototyped a “virtual environment workstation”. . VIEW generated an immersive and interactive three-dimensional world, a tool that Space Shuttle astronauts could use to rehearse their extravehicular activities before exiting the airlock. VIEW became the prototype for all ‘virtual reality‘ systems that followed – indeed, they look little different today from that original model, which is now nearly forty years old.

As the Cold War died down, the United States and its allies took a “peace dividend”, cut defense budgets and settled into what they believed to be a “peace dividend”. peace” triumphant.End of the story‘. At this pivotal moment, Cold War technologies found themselves in a new kind of arms race – the battle for attention. Video game consoles were popular from the late 1970s until Atari’s first video computer system. Sony changed everything with its first PlayStationturning some of the sophisticated real-time interactive 3D technologies developed for military simulation into an inexpensive device that could sit next to the family television.

The Internet remains the typical example of a technology originally developed for a military need.

In an unexpected shift, technologies of war have turned into technologies of entertainment. Highly realistic three-dimensional graphics have dominated cinema in films like jurassic park and toy storywhile more primitive but more engaging simulations like grave robber and Gran Turismo has delivered a captivating (some would say addictive) experience to tens of millions of people in their homes. Another arms race – a “battle for the living room” – pitted Sony’s PlayStation against Microsoft’s Xbox, as subsequent generations of consoles pushed semiconductor technologies to their limits.

By the early 2000s, consumer electronics had vastly outclassed all but the most sophisticated (and classified) military systems. Morpheus, the god of dreams, had dazzled and swept away Mars. A current-generation smartphone contains circuitry with nanoscale functionality at least equal to – and most likely better than – pretty much anything any military can buy from any weapons manufacturer.

DALL.E’s AI rendition of the Greek god Ares clad in armor constructed from telephones.

This change of power had not gone unnoticed by these soldiers. In the late 1990s, I participated in the planning of the University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies, whose stated purpose (and funding) grew out of the U.S. military’s desire for access to the creative talents and technological capabilities of people who design systems not for the battlefield, but for living rooms. Where entertainment paved the way for technological development, the military would happily follow.

In the early 2010s, the lines between entertainment and the battlefield began to blur. Advances in smartphone technology have made virtual reality cheap and accessible, making augmented reality technically possible – seamlessly blending the virtual and real worlds. The military has long recognized that they need augmented reality to fly command-control-communication (CCC) for soldiers on the battlefield, giving them “heads-up” abilities that would look familiar to any player in a real-time “open-world” game such as Battlefield 2042.

War technologies have turned into entertainment technologies.

No individual better characterizes this Janus-like transition from Morpheus to Mars than Palmer Luckey. Ten years ago, at the age of 19, Luckey founded VR startup Oculus, launching his first-ever VR headset on Kickstarter – and raising over $1 million in the first 24 hours. What had been considered moribund technology came back to life when eternal rivals Sony and Microsoft started working on their own VR systems. Two years later, Mark Zuckerberg bought Oculus for over US$3 billion.

In October 2021, Palmer’s Oculus effectively ‘ate’ the heart of Facebook’s social media business when Zuckerberg renamed the company ‘Meta’ – after the ‘metaverse’ – the long-prophesied and still-far-off universal virtual world. reality. But Palmer was long gone, following a pendulum in technological development which, after thirty years, had begun to swing away from Morpheus and towards Mars.

A smartphone most likely contains better circuitry than almost anything any military can buy.

Cashed in with Facebook money and not yet 25, Palmer set his sights on his next act, realizing that if “adversaries like Russia and China invested in cutting-edge technologies – like artificial intelligence and robotics – in their military, I’ve seen the United States fall behind… The people who really build this stuff for our military haven’t been able to do it”.

Sony, Microsoft, and Apple could create cutting-edge hardware and software systems, driven by the desire to capture billions of consumer dollars. Meanwhile, defense contractors have gotten lost in the weeds of endless procurement cycles. None of the “start-up mentality” that made Silicon Valley successful had found its way into the defense sector. In 2017, Palmer therefore founded his own defense start-up, Anduril Industries (named after the famous sword of The Lord of the Rings), making the kind of stuff you might not be surprised to find on the shelves of your average electronics retailer – but with a military edge…

The military has long recognized that they need augmented reality.

“We build unmanned aerial vehicles, from surveillance drones to aerial interceptors that drop other drones from the sky, we build ground systems that tell you where all vehicles, animals, boats and drones are at all times – communicating with each other, and ensuring that all humans and machines have the right information at the right time. We build underwater vehicles, where they can dive up to 6000 meters deep up to at the bottom of [almost] any part of the ocean.

This last point is of great importance to Australians. Anduril has signed an agreement with the ADF develop a fleet of XL-UAVs – extra-large underwater autonomous vehicles. If it works (one of the benefits of a start-up approach is that the results will be known in a year or two, rather than a decade or three), it could well be that Australia’s underwater borders will soon be under continuous surveillance by a fleet of hundreds, perhaps even thousands of these “drone” submarines. This is only possible because Anduril reuses technologies developed in the entertainment sector – from sensors to machine learning to communications – for military purposes, such as Mars fashioning his new armor from the dreams of Morpheus. .

None of the “start-up mentality” that drove Silicon Valley’s successes has found its way into the defense industry.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – along with the ever-increasing threat of forced “reunification” of Taiwan with mainland China – has focused the attention of policymakers and military planners. Budgets will follow shortly. During this decade, the direction of technological development may well move away from Morpheus and towards Mars.

We have been here before. In the first decades of the 20e century, all the technologies of the industrial revolution – which provided clothing, communication and comfort to tens of millions of people who had never known such luxury before – ended up in the engines of war deployed in Flanders and Verdun . We need to keep this in mind as we rise, newly armed, from our comfortable slumber.



About William Moorhead

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