5. Personalized Warfare

The future of warfare, much like the future of commerce, will be personalized.

Emerging threat capabilities targeting the genome; manipulating individual’s personal interests, lives, and familial ties; and subtle coercive / subversive avenues of attack against the human brain will transform war into something far more personalized, scalable, and potentially more attractive to nation-states, non-state actors, and super-empowered individuals.

A recent short dystopian-esque film created by the Future of Life Institute, entitled Slaughterbots, highlights the dangers of lethal autonomy in the future but also frames what personalized warfare could look like. Individuals are targeted very precisely by their social media presence and activism against policies deemed important by some government, non-state actor, or even super-empowered individual. While it is not shown in the film, it is possible that machine learning and artificial intelligence are assisting in these targeting and lethal autonomous efforts. The ever more connected nature of personal lives (familial and social connections) and sensitive personal information – Ethnicity, DNA, biometrics, detailed medical and psychological information – through social media, commerce, work, and financial transactions makes these vulnerabilities even more prominent.

Additionally, due to advances in the field of neuro–mapping, attacking, changing, and protecting the brain – individuals can be targeted even more specifically; environments (populated by people) could truly be shaped in ways that were never possible before.

The focus of warfare may shift from being nation-state centered to something more personal that targets specific individuals, their families, ethnic, societal, or interest groups, or defined segments of populations. This raises a number of important questions regarding the future of ethics, rules of engagement, and the scope of warfare:

1) Given the potential for adversaries to target populations based on their genomes, how do civil societies deter, defend, and (as necessary) respond to such attacks?

2) What constitutes an act of war? What happens when gray zone and asymmetric attacks extend to the living room?

3) Does war become increasingly enticing as attacks and effects can be so personalized?

4) Is influencing and changing the brain (through physical methods: bugs and drugs) the same as attacking someone? Does coercion through these capabilities constitute an act of war?

For further learning on the future of neuroscience in warfare, check out Georgetown University’s Chief of the Neuroethics Studies Program, Dr. James Giordano’s presentation “Neurotechnology in National Security and Defense,” as well as a podcast featuring Dr. Giordano by our partners at Modern War Institute.

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4 Replies to “5. Personalized Warfare”

  1. As a weaponized tactic, targeting people based on social media presence and even search engine searches was explored, briefly, in an episode of “Person of Interest;” specifically, in Season 4 in an episode called “Q&A” which aired February 2015.

    The episode addressed, in part, how one of the creators of a mobile search app called “VAL” (obvious reference to Apple’s SIRI) at a company called “Fetch and Retrieve” who modifies the search engine’s source code to target people with depression, gambling problems, and debt, etc, for the sake of the advertisers and himself for the obvious money aspect, which results in at least one person (identified with major depression) simply killing himself because instead of getting a suicide hotline he got advertiser links for drugs. Except the search engine also provided details on how depression spirals downward, links to people who’ve given up and examples of suicides. Not something you provide to someone in severe depression but this person was simply “collateral damage” in the quest for cash.

    Since Google’s search algorithm tailors itself to each person’s particular likes and has for years (continued searches in specific topic areas return more areas), bringing up what the search engine’s algorithm (an AI by another name) “thinks” you want based on past searches, weaponizing it is a matter of code and you’d never know it was changed because its subtle.

    Given the current citizenry of the US often ignores the content of articles searched out but can tell you why, at great length (on social media), they are against what the title says it’s not a stretch for successful society wide attacks in a highly polarized nation. Add in an in place media bias working to shape what the population sees along with demagogues spouting their screed followed with fringe “media” and main stream media trying to compete resulting in “grabber headlines” that feed the search engine’s personalized search focus and you’ve got a perfect environment for a nation-state, soft power restructuring because the constituents want their elected representatives (many of whom use social media only because its advantageous) to “get er done!” The resulting investigations, condemnations, etc do the work of societal breakdown for the adversary while the target country spins off in multiple directions away from the adversary.

    See: Russian disinformation campaign against the US presidential election in 2016 using semi and supervised autonomous software bots, advertising purchases, hacker groups, spam emails, etc all focused on changing the social landscape of the target country. After all, Russia started with Estonia in 2007, then Georgia, then Crimea/Ukraine, while in parallel being distracting in Syria so they are at least a decade ahead and we’re still trying to identify if a cyber-attack that doesn’t affect infrastructure but does affect perception is an act of war (and what to do if it is).

  2. And reference “how to find” folks, there’s this (amongst, no doubt, other tech giants doing the same thing)–try to read the policies and what you’re agreeing to which no one does because of length (see: United Airlines justified removal of professor because of carrier contract specifications on their website [currnetly 26 pages long in legalese] that used to be on the back of tickets).


  3. Who wrote the sentence:

    “The focus of warfare may shift from being nation-state centered to something more personal that targets specific individuals, their families, ethnic, societal, or interest groups, or defined segments of populations.”

    1. Your quote is from our Mad Scientist Initiative team’s post. If you need a citation, please attribute it to this organization and Mad Scientist Laboratory Blog Post #5. Thank you!

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