The history of warfare and international security is the history of technological innovation, and the modern era is no exception. The advent of nuclear technology, for example, led to the doctrine of deterrence through mutually assured destruction. More recent advances such as unmanned vehicles and precision mortars and missiles have increasingly minimized both own-side causalities and collateral damage, and with them the risk of unwanted shifts in public opinion, while placing ever more of a premium on accurate intelligence.

However, the pace of technological change is accelerating all the time. Can our ability to respond – even to understand – keep up?

The fear of what both friends and foes are developing, and willing to use, could overwhelm existing processes of oversight, dialogue, diplomacy and control, disrupting our ability to make informed and politically sound decisions. Rapid advances in any of the following technologies could potentially destabilize fragile balances of power and permanently alter the international security landscape, entrenching disparities between countries or heralding chaos.

Here are eight technologies that are changing the international security landscape:

  1. Drones. Essentially, drones are flying robots. The US appears to be leading the way with over 11,000 such vehicles, but the technology is spreading widely as it becomes more affordable: even North Korea reportedly possesses advanced drone technology, while off-the-shelf quadcopter drones are already being used by narcotics gangs to spy on and eliminate rivals. Last year saw the first instance of a US civilian shooting down a drone when a neighbour flew it over his property.
  2. Autonomous weapons. When drone technology is combined with artificial intelligence, the result is so-called “autonomous weapons” which can select and engage targets based on pre-defined criteria and without human intervention. These have been called potentially the third revolution in warfare, after gunpowder and nuclear. We might still be a long way from Hollywood’s humanoid-looking robots, coldly deciding who lives and dies; but current technology is advanced enough for, say, an armed quadcopter using facial recognition software to identify targets from a database and open fire. The risks of automated weapons are clear: for example, facial recognition is still far from reliable; while human override mechanisms can theoretically be built in, they can malfunction; and automated weapons could be hacked by malicious parties.
  3. Wearable devices. Possible military uses here include sensing moods to avoid poor decision making; tracking bodily functions to optimize health and performance; “exo-skeletons” to enhance soldiers’ performance, with current technology already allowing a human to carry loads of around 90kg without difficulty; and spying. In a real-life story reminiscent of an Ian Fleming novel, a lady styling herself as SexyCyborg has posted online about how she 3D-printed shoes with a hidden drawer where she installed devices for gathering information, then used her seductive appearance to gain entrance to organizations, evading the traditional detection mechanisms such as being asked to leave mobile equipment at the door.
  4. Additive manufacturing. 3D printing has already been tested by both the US and Chinese armies in war games, and could revolutionize supply chains by enabling replacement parts to be manufactured in the field from digitally transmitted designs and locally available materials. Militaries are even aiming to be able to print food, and skin and prosthetics for those injured in service. Questions remain to be solved, however, around intellectual property, quality control and liability. As printers become more precise and able to use more materials, there is also a risk of proliferation of certain types of weapon systems as it becomes easier to copy critical technologies and bypass normal restrictions such as export controls. Additive manufacturing techniques could enable the development of new kinds of warhead, with greater control of particle size and direction on detonation.
  5. Renewable energy. The capacity to generate power locally could revolutionize supply chains as much as the capacity to print parts locally. Militaries are already at the forefront of developing solar technologies, including dye-sensitized light harvesting materials which can harness light energy outside the visible spectrum. Nanomaterials embedded in clothes could potentially also turn them into a significant method of energy generation.
  6. Nanotechnology. Our ability to manipulate particles at the nano scale has progressed significantly in the last decade, and we are rapidly developing technology to make “metamaterials” which have properties that do not occur naturally. Some conceivable applications still remain in the realm of science fiction, such as Star Trek-type “cloaking devices”, and systems which can self-replicate and self-assemble. We have also barely scratched the surface of possible ways to exploit quantum effects of matter at supercooled temperatures. Still, in the short term, related innovations promise to make weaponry better, lighter, more mobile, smarter, and more precise. One challenge is that nano electronics need vast amounts of power; another is that it will be significantly harder to monitor the proliferation of nano weapons than, say, nuclear weapons.
  7. Biological weapons. While the history of biological warfare is nearly as old as the history of warfare itself, rapid developments in biotechnology, genetics and genomics are opening up new and highly lethal avenues for the creation of new biological weapons. We are already capable of altering cells and creating killer viruses. Airborne designer viruses, engineered superbugs and genetically modified plagues all seem like potential doomsday scenarios. The global norms against biological weapons, laid down in the 1925 Geneva Convention and the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, are coming under pressure as the capacity to create lethal biological weapons becomes more widespread.
  8. Bio-chemical weapons. The Chemical Weapons Convention prohibits any use of chemicals, including ‘non-lethal’ chemicals, in warfare situations – but here, too, technological advances are making such weapons almost a “do-it-yourself” project and increasingly hard to regulate. Unmanned vehicles also offer new and effective ways of delivering chemical agents in the battlefield. Advances in neurobiology and pharmaceuticals will offer increasing possibilities to alter behavioural patterns and emotions – perhaps including cocktails of chemical drugs which change neurological signals to create warrior behaviour reminiscent of zombie movies.

What is the best response to such evolving threats? Given the destabilizing nature of some of these innovations, there might be strong arguments for establishing legal prohibitions on – and, just as importantly, strong norms against – the use of certain new weapon types. With other new weapons, such as more intelligent systems and equipment, there will be the potential to reduce casualties overall if used in the right way, so we will want to try to regulate rather than prevent their use altogether.

However, it makes little sense to try to ban the development of all technologies with the potential to create weapons of a kind which we would not want to see used. Many of the above technologies have obvious civilian applications – from delivery drones to the genetic engineering of viruses to treat diseases – and indeed are largely being developed by civilian entrepreneurs.

History is replete with technologies which are initially developed with the aim of winning a conflict and later bring a peace dividend, such as improvements in aviation spurred by the First World War. History also shows it can be difficult to foretell what technologies may become most militarily impactful: just as those innovated in a military context can turn out to have life-enhancing civilian applications, so ostensibly benign technologies can be unexpectedly tweaked into killing machines.

Leaving aside the desirability of bans on the development of technologies, there is the question of feasibility. In a growing number of fields, the capacity to innovate potentially weaponizable technologies is no longer the preserve of militaries with large budgets, and can increasingly be done by small groups or individuals with off-the-shelf equipment. While technology is also improving our capacity for surveillance, it will be difficult to be confident that no group is working undetected.

Instead, the way forward lies in finding ways to incentivize technological innovation that avoid the rush into a technological arms race. This will require collaboration to understand how technologies are evolving and likely to evolve, to enable the discussion of new ethical guidelines before such technologies are widely weaponized, fall in the wrong hands or are utilized for malign purposes. Everyone stands to benefit from greater insight, more qualified oversight, better preparedness and collaborative thought leadership.

The Annual Meeting of the New Champions 2015 is taking place in Dalian, China, from 9-11 September.

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Authors: Anja Kaspersen, Senior Director and Head of International Security and Member of the Executive Committee and Andrew Hagan, Head of Chemistry and Advanced Materials, World Economic Forum

Image: A man demonstrates the Taiwan-made coastal defense rocket system at the Taipei World Trade Centre during the 2015 Taipei Aerospace and Defense Technology Exhibition, August 12, 2015. REUTERS/Pichi Chuang