September 26, 2009

The Doomsday Machine is Real

There is a fascinating article in Wired (Oct. 2009) on a Doomsday Machine called “the Perimeter System” created by the Soviets. If anyone tries to attack them with a debilitating first strike, the doomsday machine will take over and make sure that the adversary is decimated in return.

“Even if the US crippled the USSR with a surprise attack, the Soviets could still hit back. It wouldn’t matter if the US blew up the Kremlin, took out the defense ministry, severed the communications network, and killed everyone with stars on their shoulders. Ground-based sensors would detect that a devastating blow had been struck and a counterattack would be launched.”

The Doomsday machine has supposedly been online since 1985, shortly after President Reagan proposed the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI or “Star Wars”) in 1983. SDI was to shield the US from nuclear attack with space lasers (missile defense). “Star Wars would nullify the long-standing doctrine of mutually assured destruction.”

The logic of the Soviet’s Doomsday Machine was “you either launch first or convince the enemy that you can strike back even if you’re dead.”

The Soviet’s system “is designed to lie dormant until switched on by a high official in a crisis. Then it would begin monitoring a network of seismic, radiation, and air pressure sensors for signs of nuclear explosion.”

Perimeter had checks and balances to hopefully prevent a mistaken launch. There were four if/then propositions that had to be meet before a launch.

Is it turned on?

Yes then…

Had a nuclear weapon hit Soviet soil?

Yes, then…

Was there still communications links to the Soviet General Staff?

No, then launch authority is transfered to whoever is left in protected bunkers

Will they press the button?

Yes, then devastating nuclear retaliation!

The Perimeter System is the realization of the long-dreaded reality of machines taking over war.

The US never implemented this type of system for fear of “accidents and the one mistake that could end it all.”

“Instead, airborne American crews with the capacity and authority to launch retaliatory strikes were kept aloft throughout the Cold War.” This system relied more on people than on autonomous decision-making by machines.

To me, the Doomsday Machine brings the question of automation and computerization to the ultimate precipice of how far we are willing to go with technology. How much confidence do we have in computers to do what they are supposed to do, and also how much confidence do we have in people to program the computers correctly and with enough failsafe abilities not to make a mistake?

On one hand, automating decision-making can help prevent errors, such as a mistaken retaliatory missile launch to nothing more than a flock of geese or malfunctioning radar. On the other hand, with the Soviet’s Perimeter System, once activated, it put the entire launch sequence in the hands of a machine, up until the final push a button by a low-level duty station officer, who has a authority transferred to him/her and who is perhaps misinformed and blinded by fear, anger, and the urge to revenge the motherland in a 15 minute decision cycle—do or die.

The question of faith in technology is not going away. It is only going to get increasingly dire as we continue down the road of computerization, automation, robotics, and artificial intelligence. Are we safer with or without the technology?

There seems to be no going back—the technology genie is out of the bottle.

Further, desperate nations will take desperate measures to protect themselves and companies hungry for profits will continue to innovate and drive further technological advancement, including semi-autonomous and perhaps, even fully autonomous decision-making.

As we continue to advance technologically, we must do so with astute planning, sound governance, thorough quality assurance and testing, and always revisiting the technology ethics of what we are embarking on and where we are headed.

It is up to us to make sure that we take the precautions to foolproof these devices or else we will face the final consequences of our technological prowess.


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