Technology, Science Fiction and Cyber Warfare: A Chat With Peter W. Singer

Posted on by Jennifer Lawinski

What is going to shape the security landscape of the future? According to Peter W. Singer, an author and geopolitical strategist with the New America Foundation, there are many factors at play. He sat down with RSA Conference to talk about the relationship between technology and fiction, the geopolitical landscape, and more in advance of his keynote, NextWar: The Future of Technology and Geopolitics, at the Innovation Sandbox event at this year’s conference in San Francisco.

RSAC: You recently wrote a novel, Ghost Fleet. Science fiction has often been viewed as the forerunner to our actual technology. What parts of the imagined future in your novel do you expect to see become real life?

Singer: One of the funny/scary things of a book that plays in the future of war and tech is how much is already come true in just a short time. You can look at that as a positive and as a negative.

Our rule in the book was that every single technology had to be drawn from the real world. It couldn’t be vaporware; it had to be something that already exists or was already in the R&D development stage or the programmatic stage from the military side.

Despite this rule, the kinds of technologies that we are already seeing or will soon see are all sorts that people might be familiar with from science fiction. That’s everything from autonomous drones, to directed interviews—a.k.a. “lasers” —to replicators from Star Trek or 3-D printing. Artificial intelligence will be applied not just to win Jeopardy!  but to win battles; indeed, IBM's Watson already competed for a Pentagon contract.

Then there are human performance modification technologies, where we’ll see everything from what's been done to cheat at the Olympics to the wearables trend come together. And these technologies will not but just be outside the body, but be inside the body in both chemical and hardware form. The book is in many ways a look at all of that.

RSAC: How does your novel look at the changes in society, international relations and in warfare?

Singer: One of the main characters in the book is a female combat officer. That was once a controversial issue, and it's now just been opened up as policy. Likewise, another character is a married, gay Navy officer. This was a huge controversy in the days of “don't ask, don't tell,” but now the military has more important wars to fight than the old culture wars. Our point in having them in there isn’t to make some kind of social statement, but simply realism; they reflect how the military, just like the society it draws from, is changing.

More broadly, the book is set in the world of the geopolitical trends changing the roles and status of the U.S. and China and Russia. We put our fingers on how the great power competitions that shaped the twentieth century—which many thought it wouldn’t be a feature of the 21st century—are making their way back into politics.

We look at how China itself might change and evolve, particularly as you see the rise of a more powerful, more confident, more assertive, more outward looking elite—in both business and military. China has produced more billionaires than any other over the last few years, but also more warships over the last several years.

What might conflict then look like, not just a war between the kind of great powers who haven’t fought for some 70 years, but also in domains where we’ve never fought before? The word “cyberwar” gets thrown around to talk about things that are not war—everything from stealing Hollywood scripts to stealing security clearance. That's not actual war. So, we explore what an actual war between the U.S. and China might look like and how it might play out in cyberspace.

RSAC: What movie or television show gets cybersecurity and cyberwarfare the "most right?"

Singer: I'm a big fan of Mr. Robot. I love that show, but part of why is how it stands out compared to a lot of the dreck that is out there.

I co-host a cybersecurity podcast, and we interview business, political, military and technology leaders, as well as the top researchers and thinkers. The conversations have been with everyone from generals to congressmen to hackers to CISOs and we talk on everything from encryption debate to best business practices. But for fun, we do what you just did and try to ask about pop culture at the end. We ask these leaders and thinkers, “What's your favorite pop culture depiction of cybersecurity?” It is so great to hear their answers and how passionate some of them get about it. What is interesting to me is how often people of so many different backgrounds answer with “Sneakers.” It is an oldie but a goodie. Now, I don't know if its enduring popularity is because of something about where these leaders were in their lives when that movie came out (in 1992) or something that's classic about it, but that's one that I've noticed that people mention again and again and again. 

You can learn more about Ghost Fleet here. And be sure to check out Peter W. Singer's session at RSA Conference 2016: NextWar: The Future of Technology and Geopolitics.

Jennifer Lawinski

Director of Social Media & Community, Arculus

cyber warfare & cyber weapons

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