Geoff Dyer

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Blue jeans and rock & roll, or something similar, may have won the Cold War, which was ultimately a cultural and economic one for all the rockets and bombs, but robots may be the key to victory in the coming 25 years. 

In Geoff Dyer’s latest insightful Financial Times piece, the Washington-based correspondent writes the Pentagon is investing heavily in robotics and AI in an effort to keep the U.S. ahead of China and Russia as a military power in the next great arms race. I would think bioengineering will also be a part of the gamesmanship, though how far it will unfold in the next quarter century is TBD. The large sums being spent and the competition among different states with varying priorities are the reasons why I believe AI and automation will move into areas that are troubling, even if we promise ourselves something else.

In Dyer’s article, he asks five questions he believes central to the topic. An excerpt:

How far along is the military robotics revolution?

The Pentagon hails its approach as its third great technological surge since the second world war. The first was the development of battlefield nuclear weapons in the 1950s to deter a possible Soviet invasion of western Europe; the second, the development of precision strike weapons, which started in the mid-1970s and came of age during the 1991 Desert Storm campaign against Saddam Hussein.

Asked how far along the current strategy is, [Pentagon second-in-command Robert] Work says: “We are in 1976 and a period of experimentation. It is not until you see it in battle that anyone really trusts it.” He adds: “Five years from now, we will have some confrontation and we will say: ‘Holy crap, something has happened here,’ and it will start to accelerate more.”•

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Sometimes when Americans consider the path forward with regards to genetic engineering or an automated military, we do so in a vacuum. We would never do that. That’s not how it will unravel, of course. We’ll be responding to other world powers, and sometimes in a race, a competitor will run much faster than anticipated. 

In a Financial Times piece, Geoff Dyer writes of the “split-screen reality” of the Pentagon, charged with fighting ISIS in a painstakingly Vietnam-ish slog while preparing for a possibility of a Digital Age WWIII with China or Russia or whomever. “We must be prepared for a high-end enemy,” Defense Secretary Ashton Carter says. We’ll also be trying to outpace our own fears, not necessarily the same thing as realities, and anxieties can take on a life of their own.

An excerpt:

The underlying objective of the new strategy is to find weapons and technologies to ensure US forces “can fight their way to the fight” as one official puts it — to evade the layered missile defences both China and Russia can erect, to defend bases against attack from precision-guided missiles and to be able to operate carrier fleets at a much greater distance from an enemy.

For some Pentagon planners, the long-term answers will be found in robotics — be they unmanned, autonomous planes or submarines that can surprise an enemy or robot soldiers that can reduce the risk to humans by launching attacks. Mr Work, who once co-wrote a paper called “Preparing for War in the Robotic Age”, said in December: “Ten years from now, if the first person through a breach isn’t a fricking robot, then shame on us.”

Mass attack

Last week Mr Carter talked about “swarming, autonomous vehicles” — an allusion to another idea that animates current defence thinking in Washington, the use of greater volumes of aircraft or ships in a conflict. The emphasis in American military technology in recent decades has been on developing weapons platforms that are deployed in fewer numbers but boast much greater capabilities, such as the F-35 fighter jet. However, backed by low-cost production techniques such as 3D printing, Pentagon planners are flirting with a different model that seeks to saturate an enemy with swarms of cheaper, more expendable drones.

“It is the reintroduction of the idea of mass,” says Mr Brimley at CNAS. “Not only do we have the better technology but we are going to bring mass and numbers to the fight and overwhelm you.”

Mr Work’s other big theme is the combining of human and machine intelligence, whether it be wearable electronics and exoskeletons for infantry soldiers or fighter jets with suites of sensors and software passing data to the pilot.•


3 Quarks Daily pointed me to Geoff Dyer’s Threepenny piece of the reissue of Norman Mailer’s A Fire on the Moon, a 1970 book I’m fairly obsessed with. Only Mailer could dare enter his own midlife crisis into the Space Race and pull it off. He understood the moment in time better than most: The 1969 Apollo 11 liftoff marked the beginning of the end of human supremacy on Earth. The first two paragraphs:

“Mailer starts with the news of Hemingway’s death; we’ll start with Ezra Pound’s claim, in ABC of Reading, that literature ‘is news that STAYS news.’ The appeal of having one of America’s best-known writers cover the biggest news story of the decade—probably of the century, conceivably of all time—was obvious, and Mailer was a natural fit. Back then a lot of people were quoting the opinion that he was the best journalist in America. One of those people was Mailer himself, who took umbrage at praise that tacitly downgraded his achievements as anovelist. This gets aired very early on in a book in which, sooner or later, most things get aired. The irony is that Mailer ‘knew he was not even a good journalist.’ Unless, that is, he could succeed in redefining and enlarging journalism to cover pretty much everything, including the writing of the book in which the attempt would be made. Imagine Laurence Sterne with a huge subject, a big advance, and a looming deadline and you have some sense of the conflicting pressures at work on Of A Fire on the Moon (the original American title).

The deadline needs emphasizing. Other writers had plenty to say about the moon landing—everyone had something to say about it—but few would have had the chops to bang out 115,000 words for publication in three issues of Life magazine, the first tranche of which, Mailer groans, was due less than three weeks after the astronauts splashed down in the Pacific. That, to put it mildly, is a lot of words in a very short time: not quite as challenging a task as the one set out by John F. Kennedy in 1961—to land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth by the end of the decade—but a serious job of work all the same. So the question today, when no one under the age of forty-five was alive and able to experience the event, let alone read about it as news, is the extent to which the result is compromised or enhanced by the circumstances of its occasion and composition. Now that the subject matter is the stuff of history—when the word astronaut might be used in the context of historical fiction as opposed to science fiction—does Mailer’s book pass Pound’s testing definition? And where does it stand within two quite different contexts, that of other books about the moon landings and within the large scope and wildly mixed quality of Mailer’s work as a whole?”

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There’s probably something a little wrong with someone who would be a whistleblower, and a free society is usually richer for it. The question to ask about Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald is not whether they’re perfect people, whether they’re heroes, but if America is better off overall for their actions. From Geoff Dyer’s well-written Financial Times review of Greenwald’s new book:

“Ever since then Greenwald, who left the Guardian last October, has had a long line of reporters queueing outside his house in Rio de Janeiro to hear the story (I am one of the guilty parties). Yet he has somehow still managed to make the tale seem fresh. The first third of his book is a genuinely gripping account of his encounters with Snowden. Jason Bourne meets The Social Network: the film rights for this one will sell themselves.

Snowden instructed Greenwald to find the meeting room in his Kowloon hotel with a plastic alligator on the floor. He entered carrying a Rubik’s Cube (‘unsolved’) and responded to a prepared question about the hotel food. Back in Snowden’s room and with their mobile phones in the fridge to prevent prying ears, the former lawyer Greenwald questioned him for five hours. Snowden confessed that some of his political ideas had been gleaned from video games, which provided the lesson ‘that just one person, even the most powerless, can confront great injustice.’

The book adds little fresh material on the NSA but, by putting all the reporting in one place, Greenwald gives an effective sense of the sheer scope of information that is being hoovered up. In one particularly clumsy slide, the NSA brags that its goals include: ‘Sniff it All,’ ‘Know it All,’ ‘Exploit it All,’ ‘Collect it All.’

In selecting Greenwald as his main media interlocutor, Snowden chose well. Greenwald has pursued the story with passion, ensuring that the documents have achieved the widest possible impact. He has also been a tireless defender of Snowden, even after his recent disastrous appearance on a Vladimir Putin call-in show.

But that single-mindedness, mixed with self-regard, is also Greenwald’s great weakness. He lives in a world of black and white, where all government officials are venal and independent journalists are heroes. ‘There are, broadly speaking, two choices: obedience to institutional authority or radical dissent from it,’ he writes.”

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