The Future is Coming at Us Faster Than Ever. Futurist P.W. Singer Grapples with the Consequences (CDSA)

By Paul Sweeting

It’s not news that the pace of technology change today is orders of magnitude greater than it was 100 years ago, or even 50 years ago. So, too, the speed at which new technology spreads around the world and its impact is felt by individuals and societies.

It took the steam engine more than 100 years, for instance, to reach the level of global penetration and social, economic and political impact that cellular technology and internet connectivity have achieved in a matter of decades.

Yet what hasn’t accelerated nearly as much since the invention of the steam engine, according to futurist and best-selling author P.W. Singer, is the capacity of humans and societies to come to grips with the social, economic and political effects wrought by technology change.

“While technology moves at an exponential pace, our social, legal and political institutions move at a glacial pace,” Singer told Cyber Security News in an interview. “The gap between the question of what’s possible and the issue of what’s proper is growing.”

Singer, the author of several books on cyber security and cyber warfare, including this year’s Ghost Fleet (, a fictionalized version of many of his themes and ideas co-authored with August Cole, will deliver the keynote address at the 6th Annual Content Protection Summit at the Marina Del Rey Marriott on Wednesday, Dec. 2, where he will address issues ranging from the reality of future technology and geopolitics, to the role of Hollywood and science fiction literature in shaping how we think about technology and its impact.

“One thing fiction can do is to bring complex things together in an emotive manner that resonates with people,” Singer said. “We’re seeing that now in the debate around artificial intelligence and a future of killer robots. Both the idea of killer robots and the debate around it were inspired in party by science fiction, in movies like The Terminator, and now you’re seeing real-world efforts to try to prevent it. There have been UN conferences on it. [Nobel Prize-winning physicist] Stephen Hawking has spoken out about it, saying we need to stop this, we need to stop pursing AI and stop building killer robots.”

The problem, Singer says, is that ideas, once hatched, are hard to rein in.

“There are at least 21 [AI and military robotics] programs already underway,” within the U.S. defense establishment, to which Singer often consults, according to the futurist.

“I’m empathetic with the goal” of stopping militarized killer robots from becoming a reality, he added. “I think it’s coming out of a good place. But history tells us that we will only stop it if we first stop science, technology, capitalism and war. The reason the military is working on this technology is not because they think it’s cool but out of fear that other people will get there first.”

Advances in artificial intelligence and autonomous consumer devices will also raise issues that challenge our laws and legal precedents, as well as our social institutions, according to Singer.

“One of the issues we’ll have to figure out on the consumer side is where does the law actually have to be changed, and where can we rely on existing law,” he said.

Tort law might be one way forward, Singer suggests. “If your dog bites someone, where is the liability? Your dog is an autonomous being, it has some degree of agency. You didn’t bite the person, the dog did. On the other hand, it’s your dog,” Singer said. “You’re taking responsibility for its behavior up to a point. And there are also questions about your own actions leading up to the biting incident. Did you train your dog to be a fighting dog? Did you put your dog in a situation a reasonable person would consider risky? You could imagine similar questions coming up with respect to autonomous devices.”

Another hot topic arising from the collision of technology and geopolitics is the growing debate around encryption of personal data and communications in response to revelations about the massive collection of cellphone data by the U.S. and other governments. That debate has grown particularly intense in the wake of a series of high-profile terrorist incidents such as the deadly attacks in Paris earlier this month.

Singer cautions that too little is known at this point about how the Paris attackers operated to reach conclusions about the role, if any, encryption played in the failure of the French and Belgian governments to discover and prevent the plot. “It’s gotten caught up in the debate about encryption, but it appears encryption was not really an issue here,” Singer told Cyber Security News. “It appears that the majority of attackers came from the same neighborhood, so they may not have been using [phones or the internet] to communicate. It seems there may have been some surveillance of them in Belgium, but there were reports that they were speaking a Moroccan dialect of Arabic that the Belgian translators had trouble understanding, so there were a lot of factors that had nothing to do with encryption.

“Politically, it will probably have a big impact on the debate,” Singer added. “But at this point it doesn’t appear that encryption was a big part of the story.”

Asked where the political debate around encryption will ultimately shake out, Singer was philosophical. “I wish I knew,” he said. “The debate is kind of stuck right now, but it’s not going away. That much I know.”