In the next crisis between nuclear-armed states, national decision-makers may confront a much denser fog of war, an increased pressure to act, and a grave lack of understanding about the features of their operating environment—to name just a few of the changes on the horizon—due to a suite of emerging and disruptive technologies (EDTs) including social media, deep fakes, cyber weapons, drones, satellites, machine learning, autonomous systems, hypersonic weapons, and quantum computing.
In the Handbook for Nuclear Decision-making and Risk Reduction in an Era of Technological Complexity, released today by the Janne E. Nolan Center in collaboration with the Converging Risks Lab at the Council on Strategic Risks, Dr. Natasha E. Bajema and Rear Admiral John Gower, CB OBE outline a comprehensive framework for thinking about technological complexity, nuclear decision-making, and risk reduction.
“The nuclear weapon decision space is heading for hell in a technological handcart. Decision makers need to understand the risks of emerging technologies in the context of nuclear decisions, and make urgent and concrete national and international action to reduce them,” says Gower. “Understanding the nature of the problem is the first step.”
In the handbook, Gower and Bajema explore the main technological effects of EDTs that may undermine nuclear decision-making in the future: 1) the disruption of information flows; 2) the illumination of behavior patterns; 3) the compression of decision timeframes; and 4) the transformation of decision contexts. Each of these technological effects may exert a negative impact on key assumptions of nuclear deterrence strategy and thus could fundamentally change the context for nuclear decision-making, increasing the risk of miscalculation, misinterpretation and escalation.
The authors also examine how the effects of EDTs may exacerbate certain cognitive biases by providing or removing essential cognitive tools (information and knowledge), and explore how all of these factors might together impact nuclear decisions.
“In the past year, we’ve already witnessed the enormous potential of social media, deep fakes and cyber weapons for shaping a major conflict involving nuclear threats,” says Bajema. “The impact of other technological advances such as machine learning on nuclear decision-making may seem intangible right now, but now is the time to take concerted action. In addition to providing possible avenues for nuclear risk reduction among nuclear-armed states, active discussions about the growing risks of emerging technologies for the nuclear domain may lead governments to be more circumspect in their development.”
The handbook concludes by providing an overview of risk reduction measures that span policy approaches such as technology regulation, technical tools such as using blockchain for authentication, and arms control and risk reduction policy measures designed to specifically reduce the risk of nuclear weapons.
This handbook is designed to serve as an analytical guide for nuclear decision-makers to help them grapple with the technological complexity of the future, and further reduce the risk of nuclear war. It also includes a speculative scenario and table-top exercise that shows how the technological context might evolve in the near-term and provides additional resources.
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