Automated warfare is a threat to us all

| October 3, 2021

In a recent discussion about the way computers are taking over our lives I was amazed to discover that few of the programmers were aware of how a computer actually works.

The central processing unit is the heart of the machine. It is designed to process data in specific ways. The routes concerned are called the instruction set and these are surprisingly few in number. When the programmer designs a program he/she uses a high level language. This is translated to a low level and from there to a machine language which the computer can understand and work with.

The machine language can only operate with the instruction set it has available – any data which comes in is processed in exactly the same way, no matter what it is. The instruction set consists of specific actions to be undertaken – go to; add; subtract; (multiplication and division are subsidiaries of add or subtract); do; if; equal; not equal; greater than; less than; and; or; nor and so forth. Any piece of data which comes into the instruction set is treated in exactly the same way.

This means that all programs are basically related to mathematical concepts – everything must be reduced to a logical sequence of events. It is the function of the computer analyst to determine the overall structure of the program; the programmer to write the coding to carry out this concept.

Sometimes the programmer creates an overall picture of what the analyst has determined and then gives it to a coder who encodes this into the final program which is then ‘compiled’ into a machine language version which is virtually impossible for most people to understand in its entirety. This is great for ideas which are logical and straightforward.

However, humans are not logical and certainly not straight forward, so when programs are designed to either control populations or guide in decision-making a great deal of effort must be expended to allow for extenuating circumstances. For instance, we are taught at school not to lie, yet we find that all politicians and diplomats lie as a matter of course, so is lying good or bad? We are taught not to kill but when we are called up we join the military and do just that.

The Chinese are developing a quantum computer system which operates on a different scale than digital ones and so the instruction set will also be different. However, instruction sets, while seemingly logical and impartial are developed by humans with all their faults – biases, unproven concepts and political ideologies.

The computers of the future will be programmed by other computers which have been given facts from a wide variety of sources, most of which will be scientifically correct; however, it is inevitable that errors will creep in to the system which will be very difficult to isolate because the programs will, inevitably be in machine language having been ‘compiled’ from the more user-friendly high level language which programmers can read.

The USA is introducing mobile weapons which are independent of human interaction which means that they can determine friend from foe. However, it does not take much imagination to envisage a condition where it is very difficult to make that distinction – the enemy of my enemy? The friendly dictatorship which is looking to others for help? The country which is having a civil war? The religious extremists who have shown in the past that they cannot be trusted? An unfortunate accident with a nuclear device or missile?

Maybe we should insist that all computer programs designed to control a country’s infrastructure or to protect it should have available a high level language coding (i.e. the reverse of compiling to machine language level). Any errors which show up later can then be identified and rectified. It may also be possible for another computer to read the program and help with error correction.