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BusinessDay: From flint to code - our tools may yet turn on us

By Johan Steyn, 16 August 2023

Throughout history, humans have showcased an innate talent for developing tools — a characteristic that has propelled our species to overcome challenges and reshape our world. Our capacity for innovation, creation and refinement is a fundamental aspect of our identity. However, nowhere is this trait more conspicuous and complex than in the arena of warfare, particularly when considering an era when the emergence of artificial intelligence (AI) is revolutionising many aspects of our lives.

The story of humans as toolmakers takes on a new dimension in the context of AI. From basic flint tools used by our ancestors to the intricate machinery driven by code and algorithms of the present, our journey is intertwined with technology. This evolution has enabled us to advance weaponry from swords and bows to cannons and firearms. Yet, the 20th century demonstrated the darker potential of our creations with the advent of mechanised warfare during world wars.

Perhaps the one book that changed my thinking about the world the most was Jonathan Glover’s 2001 Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century. The author provides a thought-provoking exploration of the ethical challenges and moral dilemmas that shaped the previous century. The book delves into the various atrocities, conflicts, and technological advancements of the century while examining the underlying moral motivations, decisions, and behaviours that influenced these events.

Glover writes about Harry S Truman’s final decision to drop nuclear bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Though the morality of these weapons has been debated for some time, it came down to a rather casual conversation over tea. The author explores the ethicality of such weapons. Whereas in past centuries a soldier had to look his enemy in the eyes before killing him, nowadays one person makes a decision thousands of kilometres away from where the devastation would occur.

In the age of autonomous weaponry, the decision to kill is no longer in the hands of a human. AI-driven tools such as autonomous drones and cyberweapons are altering the landscape of conflict, posing novel ethical questions about the roles of humans and machines in decision-making on the battlefield.

A must-watch exploration on the topic is Netflix’s Unknown: Killer Robots. The race for military supremacy through AI-driven innovations has taken centre stage. Industry players are ushering in an era in which autonomous drones and other AI-powered tools could potentially replace soldiers in hazardous scenarios, navigate treacherous terrains and even eliminate threats with precision.

AI-led warfare is not a futuristic reality — it is already taking place. The Washington Post reported in an article, “Russia and Ukraine are fighting the first full-scale drone war”, that the war that started with tanks and trenches has taken on a digital-age dimension, featuring reconnaissance and attack drones that have become pivotal in the continuing struggle.

In a recent interview, author and historian Yuval Noah Harari explained that where in the past our tools gave us power, we are now in an era where AI-driven tools take power away from us. Our tools can now make autonomous decisions and even create new ideas.

Humans are tool makers. But now our tools are able to make other tools. And sadly these tools will be killing machines. Will our evolution from flint to code be the start of a watershed moment in our history where our tools turn on us?


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