Writing at A Fistful of Euros, Edward Hugh suggests that some countries may die demographically, losing population so severely that they are no longer sustainable as politico-economic entities:
It leads me personally to ask the question whether it is not possible that some countries will actually die, in the sense of becoming totally unsustainable, and whether or not the international community doesn’t need to start thinking about a country resolution mechanism somewhat along the lines of the one which has been so recently debated in Europe for dealing with failed banks.
Hugh has insights into the socioeconomic spiral that countries with rapidly declining populations may find themselves in, but also seems to be talking about the actual dismantling of existing countries. This leaves me wondering why and how this death would occur. Effects in three spheres come to mind:
- Demography — Population decline could leave too few people to inhabit a place. But most countries could lose vast numbers of people and still have more population per square mile than the least densely populated today. Hugh cites Ukraine, which is projected to lose one-third of its population over the next 50 years. Yet it would still have 30 million people; even if the population fell to 2 million, it would still have a higher population density than Mongolia, Australia, and other countries. Low-population spaces create governance challenges — hence current unrest in the Sahara — but don’t threaten the basic viability of a state.
- Defense — Demographic collapse creates defense issues: lack of people to staff militaries and inhabit places to demonstrate sovereignty. This does not seem central to the problem, however, as countries are now pretty well protected (at least from outright conquest) by international custom. Except in a couple of messy post-colonial situations (South Vietnam and Western Sahara come to mind), no country has absorbed another by conquest in the last 50 years. Consider vast, empty Mongolia. It certainly cannot defend itself by force from its Russian and Chinese neighbors, but it may be enjoying more independence now than it has for the last century.
- Economics — Hugh demonstrates how a downward spiral could make life more and more unpleasant, but this still does not seem to threaten states’ existence. The world is accustomed to tolerating miserably poor countries and countries that bungle their economic policies; declining countries may still be more economically sound than a Central African Republic or Zimbabwe. In some cases, smaller populations might actually help, when this leaves more wealth to go around from resource extraction. Indeed, an illustrative example — with the usual resource curse dangers — is now unfolding in Mongolia.
Finally, mechanisms may already be in operation to keep marginally viable states within security and humanitarian bounds the world finds acceptable — international forces and aid are used to prop up states (or the spaces once occupied by them) in Somalia, Haiti, Kosovo, and DR Congo, for instance. These mechanisms may be enough to counter the pressures of demographic implosions for a long time to come.
(Via Joshua Keating at Foreign Policy)
Whirlpool image: Tolomea, Flickr
As drones have become the most prominent weapon in the US arsenal, scrutiny of their use has grown. People note the hundreds of civilian casualties they have caused, and are concerned by the secrecy of their rules of engagement and the seeming remove their operators have from the real-world consequences of their actions.
In response, some are calling for drones to be banned. As one petition puts it, drones “remoteness provides those responsible with a sense of immunity. Weaponized drones are no more acceptable than land mines, cluster bombs, or chemical weapons. The world must renounce and forbid their manufacture, possession, or use. Violators must be held accountable.”
Precision and civilian casualties
Mines, cluster bombs, and chemical weapons are partially or fully banned because they are indiscriminate, which does not describe armed drones. The anti-drone campaigners may be mistaking the policies that cause civilian casualties for drones’ inherent characteristics.
Early in the Vietnam War, the US government found that it was killing or seriously injuring 1,000 civilians each week — and this was before the height of the conflict, so these numbers likely grew worse. More recently, the Sri Lankan government is said to have killed 40,000 civilians in five months as it concluded that country’s civil war in 2009. In both cases, this was driven by policy and by the imprecision of weapons such as artillery and air strikes.
As now employed, drones are much more discriminate and precise than most other weapons systems. Some have even suggested that they are so superior to other weapons in this regard that their use might become morally obligatory.
Drones will become even more precise, as they add intelligence and sensors, and replace weapons such as anti-tank missiles with other options such as lasers. Strikes might begin to kill targeted individuals with no collateral damage at all.
Immunity and accountability
The petitioners above seem to allude to a sense of personal engagement and responsibility, and to accountability, when they mention “immunity.”
Engagement and responsibility are always an issue for all combatants, and remote-control warfare could contribute, as Peter W. Singer writes in Wired for War. Some signs from drone operators suggest they are not disengaged: many are suffering combat stress. Drone operators also interact with their targets much more deeply than people firing artillery or flying strike aircraft, often observing them for hours, and witnessing the aftermath of a drone attack.
The accountability issue is real, but drones are a minor factor. Put simply, for all but the weakest states (which are subject to external power), no officials or soldiers are accountable unless their own societies decide to hold them to some standard. That is true whether one is talking about invading a country, shelling a city, shooting civilians at checkpoints, or launching drone attacks.
This accountability question will become more serious as more autonomous drones and other robotic systems are deployed, as is likely to happen soon. Human Rights Watch is calling for a ban on such technologies and they are likely correct in suggesting that autonomous killing will further muddy the question of responsibility and make atrocities easier for regimes intent on them.
But that won’t be enough to get them banned. Chemical weapons and mines are banned in part because they are indiscriminate, but also because they are not very useful. Drones, on the other hand, will become steadily more capable.
Accelerating computing power will drive this process, and remotely controlled and robotic systems will become better than humans at ever more tasks. A researcher on NOVA’s “Rise of the Drones” pointed out that a human takes 80 milliseconds to react, while a drone can respond to a situation in one millisecond. In many combat situations, that will decide who gets destroyed.
As a result, there is almost no chance that world’s militaries will not adopt them wholeheartedly. This need not result in a deterioration of human rights, however. These factors might help:
- Governments using drones and combat robots need to be told by other states and by their citizens that it matters how they are used.
- The international community should continue to strengthen norms about civilian casualties, for instance supporting prosecutions in the International Criminal Court; norm changes have been significant over the last 50 years.
- Leaders and military officers who deploy robotic systems should be held responsible for both the deployment decision and its outcomes, so that that they have concrete incentives to act responsibly.
Gary Marcus has a fascinating piece in the New Yorker about AI and morality. This passage in particular caught my eye:
What we really want are machines that can go a step further, endowed not only with the soundest codes of ethics that our best contemporary philosophers can devise, but also with the possibility of machines making their own moral progress, bringing them past our own limited early-twenty-first century idea of morality.
This would likely mean one of two approaches:
- having AI interpret one or more of our own moral philosophies
- having an AI evolve its own morality
Either of these seems problematic, even if an AI is told to put humans first, per Asimov’s laws.
In the first approach, we simply don’t know what an AI would make of a philosophy applied to the real world. What would a utilitarian AI make of the fact that cars kill more people than war? Or that medical personnel who don’t wash their hands apparently wreak more havoc than terrorists?
In the second approach, the AI might be instructed to mash up all moral systems, or simply learn by observation to create a best fit, evolving its own system. We would have no idea what might emerge. As just one example, a machine that settled on valuing sentient creatures and their well-being might conclude that the single worst atrocity in the modern world was the death of one billion pigs at human hands each year, and move to prevent this.
“Machines making their own moral progress” would mean that their values would diverge from ours. Their morality cannot be ours, as our moral sensibilities emerge from our particular brains, and are shaped by our emotions. This machine divergence might prove the ultimate in subjecting ourselves to algorithms: we would be equipping them with their own internal ideology, with all that entails.
I am left with the feeling that — to paraphrase Thoreau — “If I knew for a certainty that an AI was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life.”
On Twitter: @Geofutures
Earlier this year the polling firm YouGov undertook a survey for Professor Benjamin Valentina at Dartmouth. The results offer some insights into how Americans view our country’s future interactions with China and broader role in the world.
Staying on top — Fifty-three percent of Americans say that is is “very important” for the United States to remain the world’s most influential country, and an additional 23% say “somewhat important.” Fifty-five percent say it is “very important” for the United States to remain the world’s leading military power, with 19% more saying “somewhat important.” (Republicans are even more adamant on this question, with 79.5% saying “very important.”
- But doing so on the cheap — How Americans plan to pay to maintain primacy is unclear: 49.9% would not have their taxes increased at all to keep the US military the strongest in the world, and 17.8% would pay 5% more, with much smaller increments willing to go higher than that.
- Worried by China — While 26% of those polled think relations with China will be about the same 20 years from now, 30% think they will be somewhat or much worse, and 21% think they will be better.
- Preventing China’s rise — Americans are sufficiently worried by China that they would have rather have slow growth that added only 10% to the average American income than fast growth that doubled US incomes but left China with the largest economy. (Gains like this are probably much easier to forgo in theory than in reality.)
- Human rights have priority — Americans are somewhat idealistic when it comes to human rights, with 48% saying the US should seek universal adherence even if it damages relations with strategically and economically important countries, while 29% would give priority to maintaining good relations with such countries. (This is a question in which Democrats and Republicans are essentially in agreement.)
Image by FutureAtlas.com — usable with attribution and link
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I have an article on the future of human rights in the current issue of The Futurist magazine. (Download the article in PDF — courtesy of the World Future Society, www.wfs.org.)
The thesis of the article is that human rights are being transformed by “several powerful, positive trends … centered around changes in values and new technology.” I suggest that these trends will drive three struggles that will shape the evolution of human rights over the next few decades:
- Freedom-enhancing technology versus repressive technology
- The rise of new powers versus the influence of the legacy great powers
- Clashes within societies over values
Evgeny Morozov tweeted this yesterday: “Prediction: The social web ends once gamification meets genocide.”
Gamification would seemingly be a tool to encourage the “crowd” to participate in genocide, and crowdsourced genocide is all too plausible, as suggested by the history of the Rwandan genocide or Holocaust accounts such as Hitler’s Willing Executioners. Social media would work well for some kinds of genocide. Rwandan extremists had to rely on broadcast radio, but an African genocide could now use mobile phones for thorough, rapid mobilization and information-gathering.
Gamification is less obviously useful for genocide: crediting people with “accomplishments” in genocide attaches responsibility to them, problematic in the world of a sort-of active International Criminal Court.
But the elements of gamification — rewards, goals, peer competition, and level advancement — might work well for more mundane oppression. They could be used to test loyalty and harvest information, as long as participants felt they would not face retribution at some future date. (Many 20th century regimes recruited vast networks of informants, though some were coerced.) Gamification might even be used to obscure the nature of the informants’ activities from informants themselves, as information gathering could be compartmentalized and partially automated. It might be as simple as allowing a government to tap into one’s always-on shoulder cam.
Fortunately, gamification may be better suited to fighting human rights violations. As an information-soliciting system, it more naturally drives transparency, and is more likely to attract participants who are in freer, more secure societies.
As for the specific prediction, it is probably not quite right: the social web will continue robustly in places that don’t feel they are under the kind of threat that results in social media-driven human rights violations.
Follow on Twitter: @Geofutures
Image courtesy Eric Fischer (Flickr)
Whom to ask when you want to know if electronic records are being subtly altered? A five-year-old, evidently.
My son is in the dinosaur phase, and watches paleontology shows religiously, so we get pretty familiar with them too. One of his favorites, watched via streaming video, recently began to seem different somehow. We could swear certain lines and scenes had shifted, but we had no evidence. But he confirmed it: he knew pretty definitively whether our hunches were right about each little change.
This is likely an innocent matter involving regional broadcasting rights or the like, but it illustrates another effect of information centralization: when everything is electronic and cloud-based, there are new opportunities for information manipulation.
- Governments or corporations with legal control over content, or sufficient coercive power, might simply modify or erase key sources, using electronic centralization to be thorough about it, or thorough enough. This is especially likely as more governments attempt to control the Internet, or portions of it, and the option of coercion will grow as more governments inclined to censorship increase their economic power. This was much more difficult in the era of paper, though some governments tried: owners of the Great Soviet Encyclopedia would sometimes receive new version of articles to paste in when old versions of history fell out of favor.
- Hackers might make the same kinds of changes illicitly. Sufficiently adept or targeted changes could sew real confusion. (We saw a preview of this when an American politician garbled some American history, and her supporters attempted to alter the Wikipedia entry so that history fit the candidate’s confusion. The decentralized nature of Wikipedia thwarted this effort.)
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Image: denn (Flickr)
Image: FutureAtlas.com (usable with credit)
As the future part owner of $347 billion in nuclear missile submarines
, I had to wonder about the implications of this little autonomous underwater drone a science expo last week.
The scientist who used it described how it can operate semi-autonomously and carry a variety of sensor packages in its nose.
I was left with a simple question: how many $20,000 underwater drones would it take to hunt down $347 billion worth of submarines? With the capabilities such a drone could have in 20 years, I’m guessing that number is an order of magnitude fewer than the 1.7 million such drones you could buy for only $34.7 billion.
After all, with Moore’s Law in the drones’ corner, a submarine becomes a larger and larger piece of information to hide.
China’s Prime Minister, Wen Jiabao, visited the former German extermination camp at Auschwitz, Poland, last week. In his remarks, he suggested that “The tragedy of Auschwitz, is the tragedy of the entire human race. This history teaches us that we must oppose war, discrimination and crimes, to protect liberty, security, happiness and human dignity.”
This is a small but significant indicator, for three reasons:
- China is acknowledging universal human values that include human rights. (The ironies are obvious, but hardly unique: the United States found itself in awkward positions through the mid-1960s as it spoke of freedom while a third of the country lived under racial authoritarianism.)
- It is placing some kinds of governmental savagery outside the boundaries of acceptability — boundaries that China itself transgressed during the 20th century.
- By commenting on other people’s history, Wen is in effect opening the door another crack to the idea that human rights anywhere are everyone’s business; the willingness to acquiesce to intervention in Libya in 2011 was another sign of this.
This may be another indicator that a rising China may not overthrow global human rights norms, but instead partially integrate itself into them (while bending the rules to fit its interests and sympathies, like all great powers.)
Follow on Twitter: @Geofutures
Image courtesy Simone Onofri (Flickr)
The new nation of South Sudan has been recognized by most of the international community, but there is one great power that denies it this status: Facebook.
The social media site — population 900 million or so — is being petitioned to recognize South Sudan, though perhaps “notice” is the more accurate term.
Meanwhile, the US Postal Service is conducting its own diplomacy, at least on its postal rate dropdown menus. While you can learn what it costs to send your package to Peñón de Vélez de la Gomera or the Zafarani Islands — both inhabited only by small Spanish military garrisons — you are out of luck if you want to mail something to the West Bank, Gaza, or (heaven forbid) Palestine. That’s fortunate for the one Spanish-American whose nephew is serving on the Peñón de Vélez de la Gomera, but the thousands of Palestinian-Americans sending things to relatives just have to wing it.
The Postal Service has gotten well ahead of the rest of the US government on Asia policy, however: you can mail to “Taiwan,” and not “Taiwan (China).” Alert the Taiwanese not-embassy (which you can find by searching Google for “Taiwanese embassy”).
Perhaps the USPS will soon be hearing that it has “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people.”