The Bomber Mafia nearly changed the world—and you've likely never heard of them.
- Much has been written about World War II in the seven and a half decades since it ended in 1945. But as writer Malcolm Gladwell shows with his new book The Bomber Mafia, some incredible stories and perspectives have been largely forgotten.
- A group of pilots, led by Brigadier General Haywood Hansell, earned the derogatory nickname Bomber Mafia because of a not-widely-shared dream that they could use a few strategic bombings to lower the death toll and have a "clean" war.
- "But that's not what war ever is," says Gladwell. "It never has that kind of fairy tale ending." A few failed attempts led to a changing of the guard, the invention of napalm, and a summer of attacks on Japanese cities that Gladwell says was at "a scale of destruction almost unmatched in human history."
A brief passage from a recent UN report describes what could be the first-known case of an autonomous weapon, powered by artificial intelligence, killing in the battlefield.
- Autonomous weapons have been used in war for decades, but artificial intelligence is ushering in a new category of autonomous weapons.
- These weapons are not only capable of moving autonomously but also identifying and attacking targets on their own without oversight from a human.
- There's currently no clear international restrictions on the use of new autonomous weapons, but some nations are calling for preemptive bans.
Nothing transforms warfare more violently than new weapons technology. In prehistoric times, it was the club, the spear, the bow and arrow, the sword. The 16th century brought rifles. The World Wars of the 20th century introduced machine guns, planes, and atomic bombs.
Now we might be seeing the first stages of the next battlefield revolution: autonomous weapons powered by artificial intelligence.
In March, the United Nations Security Council published an extensive report on the Second Libyan War that describes what could be the first-known case of an AI-powered autonomous weapon killing people in the battlefield.
The incident took place in March 2020, when soldiers with the Government of National Accord (GNA) were battling troops supporting the Libyan National Army of Khalifa Haftar (called Haftar Affiliated Forces, or HAF, in the report). One passage describes how GNA troops may have used an autonomous drone to kill retreating HAF soldiers:
"Logistics convoys and retreating HAF were subsequently hunted down and remotely engaged by the unmanned combat aerial vehicles or the lethal autonomous weapons systems such as the STM Kargu-2... and other loitering munitions. The lethal autonomous weapons systems were programmed to attack targets without requiring data connectivity between the operator and the munition: in effect, a true 'fire, forget and find' capability."
Still, because the GNA forces were also firing surface-to-air missiles at the HAF troops, it's currently difficult to know how many, if any, troops were killed by autonomous drones. It's also unclear whether this incident represents anything new. After all, autonomous weapons have been used in war for decades.
Lethal autonomous weapons
Lethal autonomous weapon systems (LAWS) are weapon systems that can search for and fire upon targets on their own. It's a broad category whose definition is debatable. For example, you could argue that land mines and naval mines, used in battle for centuries, are LAWS, albeit relatively passive and "dumb." Since the 1970s, navies have used active protection systems that identify, track, and shoot down enemy projectiles fired toward ships, if the human controller chooses to pull the trigger.
Then there are drones, an umbrella term that commonly refers to unmanned weapons systems. Introduced in 1991 with unmanned (yet human-controlled) aerial vehicles, drones now represent a broad suite of weapons systems, including unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs), loitering munitions (commonly called "kamikaze drones"), and unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs), to name a few.
Some unmanned weapons are largely autonomous. The key question to understanding the potential significance of the March 2020 incident is: what exactly was the weapon's level of autonomy? In other words, who made the ultimate decision to kill: human or robot?
The Kargu-2 system
One of the weapons described in the UN report was the Kargu-2 system, which is a type of loitering munitions weapon. This type of unmanned aerial vehicle loiters above potential targets (usually anti-air weapons) and, when it detects radar signals from enemy systems, swoops down and explodes in a kamikaze-style attack.
Kargu-2 is produced by the Turkish defense contractor STM, which says the system can be operated both manually and autonomously using "real-time image processing capabilities and machine learning algorithms" to identify and attack targets on the battlefield.
STM | KARGU - Rotary Wing Attack Drone Loitering Munition System youtu.be
In other words, STM says its robot can detect targets and autonomously attack them without a human "pulling the trigger." If that's what happened in Libya in March 2020, it'd be the first-known attack of its kind. But the UN report isn't conclusive.
It states that HAF troops suffered "continual harassment from the unmanned combat aerial vehicles and lethal autonomous weapons systems," which were "programmed to attack targets without requiring data connectivity between the operator and the munition: in effect, a true 'fire, forget and find' capability."
What does that last bit mean? Basically, that a human operator might have programmed the drone to conduct the attack and then sent it a few miles away, where it didn't have connectivity to the operator. Without connectivity to the human operator, the robot would have had the final call on whether to attack.
Key line 2: The loitering munitions/LAWS (depending upon how you frame it) were enabled to attack without data conn… https://t.co/5u89cDDA60— Jack McDonald (@Jack McDonald)1622114029.0
To be sure, it's unclear if anyone died from such an autonomous attack in Libya. In any case, LAWS technology has evolved to the point where such attacks are possible. What's more, STM is developing swarms of drones that could work together to execute autonomous attacks.
Noah Smith, an economics writer, described what these attacks might look like on his Substack:
"Combined with A.I., tiny cheap little battery-powered drones could be a huge game-changer. Imagine releasing a networked swarm of autonomous quadcopters into an urban area held by enemy infantry, each armed with little rocket-propelled fragmentation grenades and equipped with computer vision technology that allowed it to recognize friend from foe."
But could drones accurately discern friend from foe? After all, computer-vision systems like facial recognition don't identify objects and people with perfect accuracy; one study found that very slightly tweaking an image can lead an AI to miscategorize it. Can LAWS be trusted to differentiate between a soldier with a rifle slung over his back and, say, a kid wearing a backpack?
Opposition to LAWS
Unsurprisingly, many humanitarian groups are concerned about introducing a new generation of autonomous weapons to the battlefield. One such group is the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, whose 2018 survey of roughly 19,000 people across 26 countries found that 61 percent of respondents said they oppose the use of LAWS.
In 2018, the United Nations Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons issued a rather vague set of guidelines aiming to restrict the use of LAWS. One guideline states that "human responsibility must be retained when it comes to decisions on the use of weapons systems." Meanwhile, at least a couple dozen nations have called for preemptive bans on LAWS.
The U.S. and Russia oppose such bans, while China's position is a bit ambiguous. It's impossible to predict how the international community will regulate AI-powered autonomous weapons in the future, but among the world's superpowers, one assumption seems safe: If these weapons provide a clear tactical advantage, they will be used on the battlefield.
U.S. officials suspect a foreign adversary is targeting American personnel with some form of "directed-energy" weapon.
- In recent history, the first reports of a potential directed-energy attack on U.S. personnel came in 2016 from American diplomats working in Cuba.
- There's no "smoking gun" evidence of who's behind the attacks, but some U.S. officials suspect the Russians.
- Supporting that claim is the history of the so-called Moscow Signal, an event in which the Soviets blasted microwaves at the U.S. embassy in Moscow from 1953 to 1976.
Since 2016, more than 130 U.S. government personnel have suffered symptoms linked to Havana syndrome, an acute illness marked by sudden headache, nausea, and the hearing of loud sounds, akin to swarming cicadas. The cause of the illness remains a mystery. But a growing number of U.S. intelligence personnel and researchers fear that some form of "directed-energy" weapon — possibly firing microwave radiation — is to blame.
One of the first cases was reported in Havana, Cuba in 2017. The victim, if it indeed was an attack, was a U.S. Foreign Service officer who was living in a quiet Havana neighborhood among other American personnel. One night she was cleaning her kitchen. If it had been daytime, her kitchen window would have offered a view of a booth outside where Cuban police monitored foreigners like herself.
But at night, the kitchen's interior lights obstructed her view of the booth, The New Yorker reported. As she was cleaning, she suddenly felt a painful burst of pressure inside her head. The pain grew. She had heard rumors of U.S. personnel suffering strange "sonic attacks," and she remembered that a security officer had once advised: to protect yourself, step away from your current position. She did. The pain decreased. But for weeks she suffered headaches, dizziness, and confusion.
Over the past five years, at least 130 U.S. personnel have reported similar symptoms while working in places like China, Russia, and Washington, D.C. The cases vary in severity, but almost all involve sudden headaches and nausea. Some victims may have brain injuries.
A 2019 study published in JAMA found that victims had "significantly smaller" white matter volume and other "significant differences" in brain structure, though it's impossible to determine whether these differences were pre-existing or stem from a directed-energy attack.
What's causing Havana syndrome?
The U.S. hasn't reported a definitive cause of these cases, but intelligence agencies are actively investigating the possibility that bad actors are using some type of directed-energy weapon against U.S. personnel.
A December 2020 report from the National Academies of Sciences found that pulsed radiofrequency energy, which includes microwave radiation, "appears to be the most plausible mechanism in explaining these cases among those that the committee considered." (Other potential causes included infection and chemicals.)
A microwave weapon seems like a fitting culprit. One reason is that sufferers of Havana syndrome often hear loud noises, which is a phenomenon that's known to happen when people are bombarded with high-powered microwaves. In the 1960s, the American neuroscientist Allan H. Frey demonstrated that exposing people to microwaves can make them hear buzzing, clicking, hissing, and speech — even though the microwave device didn't produce any soundwaves. It was all, quite literally, in their heads.
What Americans Heard in Cuba Attacks: The Sound www.youtube.com
How is that possible? Researchers have hypothesized that the noises are induced by thermoelastic expansion of bones and soft tissue in the body: As microwaves strike people, they slightly warm the body, which causes expansion. This expansion might produce sound waves that travel to the ear. Frey and other researchers have proposed different theories about which parts of the body are expanding — those in the head, or those in the ear — but the principle is the same.
To induce auditory effects, a pulsed-microwave weapon needs to transmit 40 joules per square centimeter, according to a U.S. Army report. How much energy is that? Here's how astrophysicist Dr. Ethan Siegel explained it to the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH): "If you are talking about 40 J/cm2 over the entire human body, that's about as much energy as a fully loaded Harley Davidson going 100 mph."
The Moscow Signal
We know such weapons exist, or at least did at one time. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union fired microwaves at the U.S. embassy in Moscow from a nearby apartment building for more than two decades, from 1953 to 1976. The event was dubbed the Moscow Signal.
U.S. intelligence officials initially thought the Soviets were firing the microwaves in an attempt to control the minds of American personnel, but they later reasoned that the Soviets were trying to activate espionage devices inside the building or interfere with the health of the diplomats. To this day, "many questions remain unanswered" about the long-term health effects incurred by Americans who worked at the U.S. embassy in Moscow, according to a 2019 review.
U.S. Embassy in Moscow, RussiaDzerod
A more recent example of an energy-directed weapon is the active denial system, an American technology that uses non-lethal millimeter waves for crowd control. These waves, which the U.S. says are not classified as microwaves, cause a painful heating sensation on the skin. The U.S. is also developing or has developed stronger directed-energy weapons, including microwave weapons that can destroy electronic systems from a distance.
Still, if energy-directed weapons are indeed causing Havana syndrome, what they look like and how they operate remains a mystery.
Who's behind the directed-energy attacks?
There's currently no "smoking gun" evidence for who's responsible for the attacks. But in December 2020, the CIA established a task force to investigate the more than 130 reported cases of Havana syndrome among U.S. personnel. In April, President Joe Biden's administration recently released a statement:
"The White House is working closely with departments and agencies to address unexplained health incidents and ensure the safety and security of Americans serving around the world. Given that we are still evaluating reported incidents and that we need to protect the privacy of individuals reporting incidents, we cannot provide or confirm specific details at this time."
Although the U.S. hasn't officially announced suspects, an anonymous former national security official involved in investigations recently told Politico that Russia is likely behind the attacks. Specifically, the official pointed to Russia's foreign military intelligence agency, commonly called the GRU, whose operatives were present in the locations where American personnel have reported Havana syndrome.
"It looks, smells, and feels like the GRU," said the official. "When you are looking at the landscape, there are very few people who are willing, capable and have the technology. It's pretty simple forensics."
Why Russia would carry out these attacks remains unclear. But the cases have already had a measurable impact on U.S. foreign policy, namely a 50-percent personnel withdrawal from the American embassy in Cuba, a nation that's long been allied with Russia.
U.S. Embassy in CubaU.S. State Department
While U.S. intelligence agencies now seem to be taking these threats seriously, that wasn't always the case. In the first few years after Americans first reported Havana syndrome, some officials were skeptical of the idea that a foreign adversary would launch such brazen attacks, especially on U.S. soil. Some current and former officials say this skepticism has come at the expense of U.S. personnel.
Marc Polymeropoulos, a former CIA officer who was struck by Havana syndrome in a Moscow hotel room in 2017, told the New York Times about a painting created by a fellow CIA officer and Havana syndrome victim. Called "The Gunshot," the painting depicts a red splatter on a black background.
"It signified his feeling that we all wished we had been shot, a visible injury, so that our colleagues would more readily believe us."
A recent study used fMRI to compare the brains of psychopathic criminals with a group of 100 well-functioning individuals, finding striking similarities.
- The study used psychological inventories to assess a group of violent criminals and healthy volunteers for psychopathy, and then examined how their brains responded to watching violent movie scenes.
- The fMRI results showed that the brains of healthy subjects who scored high in psychopathic traits reacted similarly as the psychopathic criminal group. Both of these groups also showed atrophy in brain regions involved in regulating emotion.
- The study adds complexity to common conceptions of what differentiates a psychopath from a "healthy" individual.
When considering what precisely makes someone a psychopath, the lines can be blurry.
Psychological research has shown that many people in society have some degree of malevolent personality traits, such as those described by the "dark triad": narcissism (entitled self-importance), Machiavellianism (strategic exploitation and deceit), and psychopathy (callousness and cynicism). But while people who score high in these traits are more likely to end up in prison, most of them are well functioning and don't engage in extreme antisocial behaviors.
Now, a new study published in Cerebral Cortex found that the brains of psychopathic criminals are structurally and functionally similar to many well-functioning, non-criminal individuals with psychopathic traits. The results suggest that psychopathy isn't a binary classification, but rather a "constellation" of personality traits that "vary in the non-incarcerated population with normal range of social functioning."
Assessing your inner psychopath
The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to compare the brains of violent psychopathic criminals to those of healthy volunteers. All participants were assessed for psychopathy through commonly used inventories: the Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised and the Levenson Self-Report Psychopathy Scale.
Experimental design and sample stimuli. The subjects viewed a compilation of 137 movie clips with variable violent and nonviolent content.Nummenmaa et al.
Both groups watched a 26-minute-long medley of movie scenes that were selected to portray a "large variability of social and emotional content." Some scenes depicted intense violence. As participants watched the medley, fMRI recorded how various regions of their brains responded to the content.
The goal was to see whether the brains of psychopathic criminals looked and reacted similarly to the brains of healthy subjects who scored high in psychopathic traits. The results showed similar reactions: When both groups viewed violent scenes, the fMRI revealed strong reactions in the orbitofrontal cortex and anterior insula, brain regions associated with regulating emotion.
These similarities manifested as a positive association: The more psychopathic traits a healthy subject displayed, the more their brains responded like the criminal group. What's more, the fMRI revealed a similar association between psychopathic traits and brain structure, with those scoring high in psychopathy showing lower gray matter density in the orbitofrontal cortex and anterior insula.
There were some key differences between the groups, however. The researchers noted that the structural abnormalities in the healthy sample were mainly associated with primary psychopathic traits, which are: inclination to lie, lack of remorse, and callousness. Meanwhile, the functional responses of the healthy subjects were associated with secondary psychopathic traits: impulsivity, short temper, and low tolerance for frustration.
Overall, the study further illuminates some of the biological drivers of psychopathy, and it adds nuance to common conceptions of the differences between psychopathy and being "healthy."
Why do some psychopaths become criminals?
The million-dollar question remains unanswered: Why do some psychopaths end up in prison, while others (or, people who score high in psychopathic traits) lead well-functioning lives? The researchers couldn't give a definitive answer, but they did note that psychopathic criminals had lower connectivity within "key nodes of the social and emotional brain networks, including amygdala, insula, thalamus, and frontal pole."
"Thus, even though there are parallels in the regional responsiveness of the brain's affective circuit in the convicted psychopaths and well-functioning subjects with psychopathic traits, it is likely that the disrupted functional connectivity of this network is specific to criminal psychopathy."
The world's 10 most affected countries are spending up to 59% of their GDP on the effects of violence.
- Conflict and violence cost the world more than $14 trillion a year.
- That's the equivalent of $5 a day for every person on the planet.
- Research shows that peace brings prosperity, lower inflation and more jobs.
- Just a 2% reduction in conflict would free up as much money as the global aid budget.
- Report urges governments to improve peacefulness, especially amid COVID-19.
What is the price of peace?
Or put another way, how much better off would we all be in a world where armed conflict was avoided?
To give some context, 689 million people - more than 9% of the world's population - live on less than $1.90 a day, according to World Bank figures, underscoring the potential impact peace-building activities could have.
Just over 10% of global GDP is being spent on containing, preventing and dealing with the consequences of violence. As well as the 1.4 million violent deaths each year, conflict holds back economic development, causes instability, widens inequality and erodes human capital.
Putting a price tag on peace and violence helps us see the disproportionately high amounts spent on creating and containing violent acts compared to what is spent on building resilient, productive, and peaceful societies.
— Steve Killelea, founder and executive chairman, Institute for Economics & Peace (IEP)
The cost of violence
In a report titled
"The Economic Value of Peace 2021", the IEP says that for every death from violent conflict, 40 times as many people are injured. The world's 10 most affected countries are spending up to 59% of their GDP on the effects of violence.
Grounds for hope
But the picture is not all bleak. The economic impact of violence fell for the second year in a row in 2019, as parts of the world became more peaceful.
The global cost dropped by $64 billion between 2018 and 2019, even though it was still $1.2 trillion higher than in 2012.
In five regions of the world the costs increased in 2019. The biggest jump was in Central America and the Caribbean, where a rising homicide rate pushed the cost up 8.3%.
Syria, with its ongoing civil war, suffered the greatest economic impact with almost 60% of its GDP lost to conflict in 2019. That was followed by Afghanistan (50%) and South Sudan (46%).
The report makes a direct link between peace and prosperity. It says that, since 2000, countries that have become more peaceful have averaged higher GDP growth than those which have become more violent.
"This differential is significant and represents a GDP per capita that is 30% larger when compounded over a 20-year period," the report says adding that peaceful countries also have substantially lower inflation and unemployment.
"Small improvements in peace can have substantial economic benefits," it adds. "For example, a 2% reduction in the global impact of violence is roughly equivalent to all overseas development aid in 2019."
Equally, the total value of foreign direct investment globally only offsets 10% of the economic impact of violence. Authoritarian regimes lost on average 11% of GDP to the costs of violence while in democracies the cost was just 4% of GDP.
And the gap has widened over time, with democracies reducing the cost of violence by almost 16% since 2007 while in authoritarian countries it has risen by 27% over the same period.
The report uses 18 economic indicators to evaluate the cost of violence. The top three are military spending (which was $5.9 trillion globally in 2019), the cost of internal security which makes up over a third of the total at $4.9 trillion and homicide.
Peace brings prosperity
The formula also contains a multiplier effect because as peace increases, money spent containing violence can instead be used on more productive activities which drive growth and generate higher monetary and social returns.
"Substantial economic improvements are linked to improvements in peace," says the report. "Therefore, government policies should be directed to improving peacefulness, especially in a COVID-19 environment where economic activity has been subdued."
The IEP says what it terms "positive peace" is even more beneficial than "negative peace" which is simply the absence of violence or the fear of violence. Positive peace involves fostering the attitudes, institutions & structures that create and sustain peaceful societies.
The foundations of a positively peaceful society, it says, are: a well functioning government, sound business environment, acceptance of the rights of others, good relations with neighbours, free flow of information, high levels of human capital, low levels of corruption and equitable distribution of resources.
The World Economic Forum's report Mobilizing the Private Sector in Peace and Reconciliation urged companies large and small to recognise their potential to work for peace quoting the former Goldman Sachs chair, the late Peter Sutherland, who said: "Business thrives where society thrives."