The High-Tech Arms Race; Tariffs are Bad*

The High-Tech Arms Race

We humans have a primal fear of machines and their capacity to out-think and potentially replace us. We worry that with their superior computing ability, machines might develop self-awareness and, in a very human-like way, seek to become Earth’s dominant life form. Expressing that fear has a long history among science fiction writers, particularly Isaac Asimov. It also found a receptive audience in The Terminator, a movie in which Arnold Schwarzenegger played a cyborg manufactured in quantity by a fiendish artificial intelligence network named Skynet intent on taking over the world. The premise of movies like The Terminator is that humans plant the seeds of their own destruction by creating increasingly more sophisticated machines that, over time, develop sentience.

Hypersonic weapons may represent those first seedlings.

Hypersonics are projectiles – usually missiles, though also artillery rounds, carrying either conventional or nuclear warheads – that travel at speeds greater than 5 times the speed of sound (mach 5), change direction “intelligently” by unilaterally making both evasive and misleading maneuvers, and hit targets with machine-like precision. Vladimir Putin in his State of the Union message earlier this year flaunted a Russian missile that he said would give Russia military superiority throughout Europe: “This is a hypersonic [cruise] missile called Tsirkon. It will have the speed of mach 9 [which means it would travel ~2 miles/second], it has a range of 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) and can hit navy or land targets.” Putin in 2018 said that another Russian hypersonic missile, the Avangard, is “invulnerable to interception.” It can travel at up to 20 times the speed of sound (which means it would travel more than 4 miles in a single second) and would be able to hit any target on Earth within 30 minutes. When/if these weapons become operational, they will dramatically change the global military hierarchy and make obsolete existing weapons systems. They also will accelerate necessary changes in how artificial intelligence (AI) is programmed and put high-tech weaponry under the control of newly-advanced AI.

China has a similar hypersonic weapons program. Its initial weapons have been designed specifically to secure the Western Pacific and counter America’s aircraft carrier fleets. Those carrier fleets project American power and are the foundation for America’s status as global hegemon. China’s hypersonics are intended to deter and, if necessary, defeat those aircraft carrier fleets, at the least keeping them at a safe distance from China and giving China hegemony initially over contiguous sea lanes. No one outside China knows the status of its hypersonic program. However, China has made AI dominance its highest priority. Among other things, China’s hypersonic weapons would provide it with enormous leverage over Taiwan as well as any other country or region where China might choose to deploy those weapons, including in areas contiguous to its Belt and Road Initiative (see “Red Storm Rising” in the April 121th TLR).

Just as in the 1960s Space Race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, the Hypersonics Race will escalate. There is an enormous incentive for each of Russia, China and the U.S. to outdo the others in developing weapons systems that are indeed indefensible … as well as weapons systems that successfully defend against what initially may be thought to be indefensible. Russia’s focus on hypersonic weapons that would allow it to leverage its influence over Europe is similar to China’s focus on developing weapons that would allow it to dominate Taiwan and its other Asian neighbors. Russia’s and China’s programs require the development of increasingly sophisticated AI that would enable their weapons to avoid detection and defeat countermeasures. In turn, the U.S. is developing AI systems that are intended to detect and destroy Russia’s and China’s hypersonics … and also to develop its own “invulnerable” hypersonic weapons. It’s a race where there is no finish line but in which all sides agree that humans will be ineffective controllers of the new high-tech weapons. Hypersonic weapons move extraordinarily fast, require split second decision-making at a higher level of complexity than humans are capable of achieving, and digest an almost infinite amount of data. When it comes to hypersonics, AI necessarily will replace human judgment and reaction time.

Imagine that Russia in 2023 has a workable arsenal of Avangard missiles, some of which are topped with nuclear warheads. In a test of territorial wills between the U.S. and Russia in the Arctic Ocean, Russia sends some of those missiles in a random direction that could easily pivot to an American aircraft carrier fleet operating in the Arctic. Those weapons will reach their targets in less than 3 minutes. Who/what makes the decision to intercept, defend or strike first?

In the 1980s, humans realized that they no longer were capable of designing new supercomputers, so they created supercomputers to design the next generation of supercomputers. Published in 1981, The Soul of a New Machine describes the process. The evolution of weapons’ grade AI necessarily will follow a similar process – intelligent machines designing and building more intelligent machines. And the newest intelligent machines will have to extrapolate from a myriad of common experiences – that is, they will be progressing towards some level of self-awareness. A 1983 movie that highlighted similar dangers is War Games. The difference is that in the next generation of intelligent weapons, it will be the weapons themselves, and not their human handlers, that will have to make unilateral decisions.

The dystopic vision of a world ruled by intelligent machines has been addressed by generations of science fiction writers. Isaac Asimov’s solution was to program computers with three laws, his Three Laws of Robotics: (1) A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm; (2) A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law; (3) A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law. Unfortunately, the Three Laws of Robotics won’t work with weapons of war directed against human beings. An important challenge today is for the U.S., Russia and China to coordinate their AI programming – by treaty or otherwise – to avoid a truly dystopic outcome. The right time to begin doing so is now.

Tariffs are Bad

At a political rally on May 8th, President Trump trumpeted his decision to increase tariffs on Chinese goods by repeating that “They broke the deal, but don’t worry about it [because] they’ll be paying,” adding that there’s “nothing wrong with taking in $100 billion a year [in tariffs].” Even assuming the validity of the $100 billion number (which the Congressional Budget Office disputes), tariffs do not increase wealth, they reduce it. In asserting in 2018 when he imposed the first China tariffs that “Trade wars are good, and easy to win,” Trump was wrong. Tariffs are bad. Trade wars are bad. And both sides lose. Tariffs are taxes that destroy both wealth and national income – as any weapon of war does. As in any war, the only winners are those who remain off the battlefield.

Because tariffs are a weapon of war, they cause casualties on both sides. It takes a long time to determine who might have been a winner in a Tariff War, in part because there rarely is one. Tariffs distort prices. They alter the conduct of producers and consumers. They tax economically-efficient markets. They increase the size of government and require centralized planning that by definition damages national and international commerce. As a consequence, Tariff Wars create both intentional and unintentional consequences. By their nature, they damage capitalism itself.

Like any weapon of economic war, Trump’s tariffs are intended to damage the economies of targeted countries – primarily China’s (although a number of tariffs also have been directed — and more are threatened — against America’s allies). If deployed strategically with realistic tactical goals, over time the costs of those tariffs can be more than offset by their long-term benefits. However, there have been few Tariff Wars in which clear and reasonably attainable goals have been targeted and fewer still where they actually have been achieved. The adverse effects of the now-infamous Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act prolonged and deepened the Great Depression. It did no favors for its intended American agricultural and manufacturing beneficiaries, while destabilizing the global trading system. In doing so, it helped make the Great Depression truly “Great.”

Trump has been criticized for citing “national security” (determined by the Commerce Department rather than the Department of Defense) as a pretext for imposing the tariffs. (He’s relied on an expansive application of executive power to impose what Constitutionally has been a legislative function.) Whatever the merits of that criticism, one effect of the tariffs is to increase the size and reach of the Federal government, a decidedly negative, unRepublican policy outcome. Enforcement of the tariffs, and exceptions to their application, is solely within the purview of the Commerce Department, the actions of which are opaque, slow, and intentionally political. There is no appeal from its decisions, no due process protection. In imposing the tariffs, Trump offered to bail out American farmers damaged by the trade war. Using a New Deal-era crop insurance program (another longstanding Democratic Party policy), more than $9 billion has been distributed to farmers adversely affected by China’s retaliatory tariffs.

No one has suggested that the Trump tariffs will have the same consequences as the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930. However, unless those tariffs pay big dividends, they will not benefit America, Americans or the global economy. It’s therefore difficult to make a case for their continuation in the absence of tangible results. The dilemma is how to figure a way out. See also “Red Storm Rising” in the April 12th TLR.

Finally (from a good friend)

Aphorism: A short, pointed sentence that expresses a wise or clever observation.

1. The nicest thing about the future is that it always starts tomorrow.
2. Money will buy a fine dog, but only kindness will make him wag his tail.
3. If you don’t have a sense of humor, you probably don’t have any sense at all.
4. Seat belts are not as confining as wheelchairs.
5. A good time to keep your mouth shut is when you’re in deep water.
6. How come it takes so little time for a child who is afraid of the dark to become a teenager who wants to stay out all night?
7. Business conventions are important because they demonstrate how many people a company can operate without.
8. Why is it that at class reunions you feel younger than everyone else looks?
9. Stroke a cat and you will have a permanent job.
10. No one has more driving ambition than the teenage boy who wants to buy a car.
11. There are no new sins; the old ones just get more publicity.
12. There are worse things than getting a call for a wrong number at 4 am – for example, it could be the right number. (Think about this one!)
13. No one ever says “It’s only a game” when their team is winning.
14. I’ve reached the age where “happy hour” is a nap.
15. Be careful about reading the fine print – there’s no way you’re going to like it.
16. The trouble with bucket seats is that not everybody has the same size bucket.
17. Do you realize that, in about 40 years, we’ll have thousands of old ladies running around with tattoos?
18. Money can’t buy happiness, but somehow it’s more comfortable to cry in a Mercedes than in a Chevy.
19. After 70, if you don’t wake up aching in every joint, you’re probably dead.
20. Always be yourself because the people that matter don’t mind, and the ones that mind don’t matter.
21. Life isn’t tied with a bow, but it’s still a gift.

*┬® Copyright 2019 by William Natbony. All rights reserved.

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