Habits: How to be successful every day
Habits are easier to hack and change when you understand how they work.
GRETCHEN RUBIN: The key thing about a habit really comes down to decision-making because sometimes people think about it's something that you do repeatedly, or you know, it unfolds over time. But really the key thing about a habit is that you're not making a decision. You're not deciding whether to brush your teeth. You're not deciding whether to use a seatbelt. You're not deciding whether to go to the gym first thing in the morning. You've already decided, and the advantage of a habit is that once something's on automatic pilot, then the brain doesn't have to use any energy, or willpower to make a decision. You've already made that decision. You're just moving forward. And so, it happens easily without any thought, without any willpower, without any effort. You're just on cruise control, and then you can do what you wanna get done. Habit is like the invisible architecture of everyday life. Research shows that something like 40% of what we do every day we do in pretty much the same way and in the same context. So it's easy to see that if you have habits that work for you, you're much more likely to be happier, healthy, and more productive. If you have habits that don't work for you, it's really gonna drag you down, because such a big part of our days is taken up by habits.
CHARLES DUHIGG: And this gets to the way that habits work, which is that there's this thing called the habit loop. There's three parts to it. There's first a cue, which is a trigger for a behavior, and then the behavior itself, which we usually refer to as a routine, or scientists refer to as routine, and then there's the reward, and the reward is actually why the habit happens in the first place. It's how your brain sort of decides should I remember this pattern for the future or not? And the cue and the reward become neurologically intertwined until a sense of craving emerges that drives your behavior. And this actually explains so much of our lives, and not only our lives, but also how companies function.
DAN ARIELY: So what happened is that the world around us is designed to tempt us. You know, one of the principles from behavioral economics is choice architecture, the idea that we, when we are placed in an environment, we make decisions as a function of the environment we're in. Think about the environment that we're in. What is it about? Is it about our long-term health? Or is it about the short-term profits of that environment? You walk down the street, there's a coffee shop. What does this coffee shop want? They want you to be healthy in 30 years from now, or do you want them to, they, do they want you to buy another coffee right now? Dunkin' Donuts, what is their optimization function? Are they trying to get you to be healthy in 20 years, or to buy another donut now? Your cell phone, what is it trying to do, to get you to be a productive citizen in two years, or to check your phone a couple of more times today? So what happened is that we are in an environment that tempts us all the time. These temptations are only increasing, and because of that, we fail.
RUBIN: One of the mysteries of habits is why do we persist in having bad habits when we know they're not good for us, when they know they don't make us happy? But you know, there's usually multiple things going. Maybe it's what you want right this minute versus what you want on the long-term. Or maybe you want two things that are in conflict.
JULIA GALEF: One example of rationality in action, just to give you a sense of what it looks like, and how it's relevant, back in 1985, Intel had a large foot in the memory chip manufacturing business, and they'd been losing money on memory chips for years. So the two co-founders, Andy Grove and Gordon Moore, met to figure out what to do. And at one point, Andy asked, "What do you think a new CEO would do if the board kicked us out and brought in a new CEO?" And without hesitating, Gordon replied, "Oh he would get out of the memory business." And Andy said, "Well, so is there any reason we shouldn't do that, if we just walk out the door and come back in, and switch out of the memory business?" And in fact, that's exactly what they decided to do, and it was a huge success. And this is just one example of a cognitive bias that appears in lots of contexts and lots of scales called the commitment effect, where we stick with a business plan, or a career, or a relationship long after it's become quite clear that it's not doing anything for us, or that it's actively destructive, or self-destructive, because we have an irrational commitment to whatever we have been doing for a while, because we don't like the idea of our past investment having gone to waste, or because it's become part of our identity. And the technique that Andy and Gordon used to snap themselves out of their commitment effect is also a really generally useful technique called looking at a problem as if you were an outsider, or an outside party.
ARIELY: So here's what happens. When you think about your own life, you're trapped within your own perspective. You're trapped within your own emotions and feelings and so on. But if you give advice to somebody else, all of a sudden you're not trapped within that emotional combination mishmash complexity, and you can give advice that is more forward-looking, and not so specific to the emotions.
RUBIN: So when you have a bad habit, it's very helpful to think very clearly 'What do I really want over the long-term? What's really most important to me?' And that can help you fight back against the pull, the gravitational pull, that a bad habit can exert.
PENN JILLETTE: I was probably over 340, certainly around there. And now as I sit here in front of you I'm probably about 232. There's a fluctuation of a couple pounds that goes back and forth. It's a lot of weight. I did not lose it for vanity. I was pretty happy with myself fat. I didn't mind being fat. Wasn't a big deal to me. I didn't mind how I looked. But my health was getting bad. I didn't even mind how I felt very much, didn't mind, you know, not being energetic and stuff, but I started having blood pressure that was stupid high, like you know, the English voltage, like 220, even on blood pressure medicine. And I have two young children. I'm an old dad. My children, my daughter was born when I was 50. And now that I'm lighter, I feel lighter and I feel happier. And you know, there's a chance, my chances of living longer for my children have gone up considerably. You know, I lost my mom and dad when I was 45, and a year of my life was in deep, deep mourning, you know? And there's a very good chance my children will have to go through losing their dad, and I'd much rather they do that when they're a little older than having to do that when they're 15. It turns out that being with my children was more important to me than chocolate cake.
ADAM ALTER: If you look at life as a series of goals, which for many of us it is, it's a period of being unsuccessful in achieving the goal, then hitting the goal, then feeling like you haven't really got much from that goal, and going to the next one. Goals generally, I think, are in many ways broken processes. I think part of the problem with goals is that they don't tell you how to get to where you're going. A better thing to do is to use a system. So the idea behind a system rather than a goal is that a system is saying things like I'm a writer, my goal is to finish writing this book, but I'm not gonna think about it that way. Eventually, I'll have 100,000 words, but what my system will be that for an hour every morning I will sit in front of my computer screen, and I will type. It doesn't matter what that looks like. I'm not going to evaluate the number of words. I'm not gonna set some benchmarks, some artificial number or benchmark that I should reach. What I'm gonna do is just say here's my system, an hour a day in front of the screen, will do what I can, bam. And the thing is every time you set a system and you stick to it, you're achieving something. Instead of a goal that you're failing essentially for long periods of time until you reach the goal, you're succeeding every day, as long as you adhere to your system, and you end up getting to the same place, but that framing is so much more effective. It gives you the kind of positive feedback you seek. And a system is kind of geared towards psychological well-being. This is the thing I need to do to feel good about the way I'm moving through the world towards whatever end state I'm looking for. Goals don't do that. They just set signposts that you're supposed to look at from afar and move towards. Systems are a much more useful way of engaging with the world towards certain ends and certain outcomes.
SYLVIA TARA: You have to kind of build these self-control muscles, these habits, if you will, make it part of your lifestyle, so that it's automatic. It's not a big effort for you anymore. And so, you can start small. Start with small things. Make them a habit, and then build up to bigger things. There's also something called temptation bundling. And so, we can pair a want activity with a should activity. No one really wants to do a should activity all the time. It is a muscle, and even willpower, you have to give it a little bit of a break. And so, when people do a should activity all the time, they get fatigued, and they show healthcare workers, they're supposed to wash their hands all day, and they start doing it less at the end of the day. And so, when they give them longer breaks in between their shift, they find that they'll continue to do it. They'll wash their hands through to the end of the day. And so, it's important to take the breaks, engineer in a break into this long-term regimen that you have.
DUHIGG: Once a habit exists, you can't just quelch it. You can't, you can't pretend it's not there. You have to accommodate this need in your life. And so, the answer is to give yourself five minutes every hour. In fact, you can set an alarm at the end of every hour. Give yourself five minutes to surf the web, because if you allow yourself five minutes every hour, it won't explode into 45 minutes, because you've been trying to suppress it.
RUBIN: It's very important to know what a treat is. A treat is not a reward. It's not something that you get because you earned it. You don't have to justify it. A treat is something that you get because you want it, and treats may sound like kind of a selfish, self-indulgent strategy to use. But treats are very important, because the fact is treats help us get self-command. They energize us. They make us feel comforted and cared for. And when we are like that, then we can ask more of ourselves in other ways. So when we give more to ourselves, we can ask more from ourselves, and you often hear people when justifying a bad habit with like, "I need it, I've earned it, I deserve it." So, and a lot of times people go for unhealthy treats, because they feel like they need to recharge their battery. And so, they use an unhealthy treat. But if you load yourself with healthy treats, if you have a large lot of items to choose from—and it's not as easy to come up with a long list of healthy treats as you think—then you're gonna be able to recharge your battery. And there are some treats that are often unhealthy: food treats, technology treats, and shopping treats. A lot of times, these can become unhealthy treats very quickly. So if you use them, you have to be very mindful and use them judiciously and know that they're not gonna spiral out of control for you. One question is whether you're better off trying to do one habit at a time if you're trying to make change, or whether you do many all at once, and like many things with habit formation, there's just no magic answer. There's no one-size-fits-all solution. Some people do better when they start small, when they keep it very simple, and they gain the habit of the habit. They get a feeling of accomplishment, and it's very manageable and realistic, 'cause it's something very small, and it's just one thing. But on the other hand, there are some people who love to go big, that love big transformations, and big challenges. And so, something to do is to think about yourself, and think, well, when have I succeeded in the past, or what appeals more to my nature, and to think about what works for you, because there really isn't one perfect way to change a habit, or to change a bunch of habits.
- Habits, both good and bad, are pre-made decisions that make up around 40 percent of our day and require no real conscious thought. In order to regain control, resist environmental temptations, and reduce your bad habits, it helps to understand the three parts of a habit loop: the cue (or trigger), the behavior itself, and the reward.
- Gretchen Rubin, Dan Ariely, Charles Duhigg, Adam Alter, and others explain how you can successfully hack your habits by shifting away from goal-based achievement markers to system-based processes; learning the difference between rewards and treats; and thinking less about immediate gains and more about long-term benefits.
- Regardless of what some people might try to sell you, there is no "magic answer" when it comes to changing habits, says Rubin. You have to find what works best for you.
- Why Do People Perform Ritual? Harvard Historian Michael Puett ... ›
- Use Behavioral Economics to Trick Yourself into Breaking Bad Habits ›
- To Break Bad Habits, You Must Create New Ones - Big Think ›
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The experience of life flashing before one's eyes has been reported for well over a century, but where's the science behind it?
At the age of 16, when Tony Kofi was an apprentice builder living in Nottingham, he fell from the third story of a building. Time seemed to slow down massively, and he saw a complex series of images flash before his eyes.
As he described it, “In my mind's eye I saw many, many things: children that I hadn't even had yet, friends that I had never seen but are now my friends. The thing that really stuck in my mind was playing an instrument". Then Tony landed on his head and lost consciousness.
When he came to at the hospital, he felt like a different person and didn't want to return to his previous life. Over the following weeks, the images kept flashing back into his mind. He felt that he was “being shown something" and that the images represented his future.
Later, Tony saw a picture of a saxophone and recognized it as the instrument he'd seen himself playing. He used his compensation money from the accident to buy one. Now, Tony Kofi is one of the UK's most successful jazz musicians, having won the BBC Jazz awards twice, in 2005 and 2008.
Though Tony's belief that he saw into his future is uncommon, it's by no means uncommon for people to report witnessing multiple scenes from their past during split-second emergency situations. After all, this is where the phrase “my life flashed before my eyes" comes from.
But what explains this phenomenon? Psychologists have proposed a number of explanations, but I'd argue the key to understanding Tony's experience lies in a different interpretation of time itself.
When life flashes before our eyes
The experience of life flashing before one's eyes has been reported for well over a century. In 1892, a Swiss geologist named Albert Heim fell from a precipice while mountain climbing. In his account of the fall, he wrote is was “as if on a distant stage, my whole past life [was] playing itself out in numerous scenes".
More recently, in July 2005, a young woman called Gill Hicks was sitting near one of the bombs that exploded on the London Underground. In the minutes after the accident, she hovered on the brink of death where, as she describes it: “my life was flashing before my eyes, flickering through every scene, every happy and sad moment, everything I have ever done, said, experienced".
In some cases, people don't see a review of their whole lives, but a series of past experiences and events that have special significance to them.
Explaining life reviews
Perhaps surprisingly, given how common it is, the “life review experience" has been studied very little. A handful of theories have been put forward, but they're understandably tentative and rather vague.
For example, a group of Israeli researchers suggested in 2017 that our life events may exist as a continuum in our minds, and may come to the forefront in extreme conditions of psychological and physiological stress.
Another theory is that, when we're close to death, our memories suddenly “unload" themselves, like the contents of a skip being dumped. This could be related to “cortical disinhibition" – a breaking down of the normal regulatory processes of the brain – in highly stressful or dangerous situations, causing a “cascade" of mental impressions.
But the life review is usually reported as a serene and ordered experience, completely unlike the kind of chaotic cascade of experiences associated with cortical disinhibition. And none of these theories explain how it's possible for such a vast amount of information – in many cases, all the events of a person's life – to manifest themselves in a period of a few seconds, and often far less.
Thinking in 'spatial' time
An alternative explanation is to think of time in a “spatial" sense. Our commonsense view of time is as an arrow that moves from the past through the present towards the future, in which we only have direct access to the present. But modern physics has cast doubt on this simple linear view of time.
Indeed, since Einstein's theory of relativity, some physicists have adopted a “spatial" view of time. They argue we live in a static “block universe" in which time is spread out in a kind of panorama where the past, the present and the future co-exist simultaneously.
The modern physicist Carlo Rovelli – author of the best-selling The Order of Time – also holds the view that linear time doesn't exist as a universal fact. This idea reflects the view of the philosopher Immanuel Kant, who argued that time is not an objectively real phenomenon, but a construct of the human mind.
This could explain why some people are able to review the events of their whole lives in an instant. A good deal of previous research – including my own – has suggested that our normal perception of time is simply a product of our normal state of consciousness.
In many altered states of consciousness, time slows down so dramatically that seconds seem to stretch out into minutes. This is a common feature of emergency situations, as well as states of deep meditation, experiences on psychedelic drugs and when athletes are “in the zone".
The limits of understanding
But what about Tony Kofi's apparent visions of his future? Did he really glimpse scenes from his future life? Did he see himself playing the saxophone because somehow his future as a musician was already established?
There are obviously some mundane interpretations of Tony's experience. Perhaps, for instance, he became a saxophone player simply because he saw himself playing it in his vision. But I don't think it's impossible that Tony did glimpse future events.
If time really does exist in a spatial sense – and if it's true that time is a construct of the human mind – then perhaps in some way future events may already be present, just as past events are still present.
Admittedly, this is very difficult to make sense of. But why should everything make sense to us? As I have suggested in a recent book, there must be some aspects of reality that are beyond our comprehension. After all, we're just animals, with a limited awareness of reality. And perhaps more than any other phenomenon, this is especially true of time.
Might as well face it, you're addicted to love.
Since people started writing, they've written about love. The oldest love poem known dates back to the 21st century BCE. For most of that time, writers also apparently have been of two (or more) minds about it, announcing that love can be painful, impossible to quit, or even addictive — while also mentioning how nice it is.
The idea of love as an addiction is one that is both familiar and unsettling. Surely it can't be the case that our mutual love with our partner — a thing that can produce euphoria, consumes a great deal of our time, and which we fear losing — can be compared to a drug habit? But indeed, many scientists have turned their attention to the idea of "love addiction" and how your brain on drugs might resemble your brain in love.
Love and other drugs
In a 2017 article published in the journal Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology, a team of neuroethicists considered the idea that love is addicting and held the idea up to science for scrutiny.
They point out that the leading model of addiction rests on the notion of a drug causing the brain to release an unnatural level of reward chemicals, such as dopamine, effectively hijacking the brain's reward system. This phenomenon isn't strictly limited to drugs, though they are more effective at this process than other things. Rats can get a similar rush from sugar as from cocaine, and they can have terrible withdrawal symptoms when the sugar crash kicks in.
On the structural level, there is a fair amount of overlap between the parts of the brain that handle love and pair-bonding and the parts that deal with addiction and reward processing. When inside an MRI machine and asked to think about the person they love romantically, the reward centers of people's brains light up like Broadway.
Love as an addiction
These facts lead the authors to consider two ideas, dubbed the "narrow" and "broad" views of love as an addiction.
The narrow view holds that addiction is the result of abnormal brain processes that simply don't exist in non-addicts. Under this paradigm, "food-seeking or love-seeking behaviors are not truly the result of addiction, no matter how addiction-like they may outwardly appear." It could be that abnormal processes cause the brain's reward system to misfire when exposed to love and to react to it excessively.
If this model is accurate, love addiction would be a rare thing — one study puts it around five to ten percent of the population — but could be considered a disorder similar to others and caused by faulty wiring in the brain. As with other addictions, this malfunction of the reward system could lead to an inability to fully live a typical life, difficulty having healthy relationships, and a number of other negative consequences.
The broad view looks at addiction differently, perhaps even radically.
It begins with the idea that addiction exists on a spectrum of motivations. All of our appetites, including those for food and water, exist on this spectrum and activate similar parts of the brain when satisfied. We can have appetites for anything that taps into our reward system, including food, gambling, sex, drugs, and love. For most people most of the time, our appetites are fairly temperate, if recurring. I might be slightly "addicted" to food — I do need some a few times per day — but that "addiction" doesn't have any negative effects on my health.
An appetite for cocaine, however, is rarely temperate and usually dangerous. Likewise, a person's appetite for love could reach addiction levels, and a person could be considered "hooked" on relationships (or on a particular person). This would put love addiction at the extreme end of the spectrum.
None of this is to say that the authors think that love is bad for you just because it can resemble an addiction. Love addiction is not the same as cocaine addiction at the neurological level: important differences, like how long it takes for the desire for another "hit" to occur, do exist. Rather, the authors see this as an opportunity to reconsider our approach to addiction in general and to think about how we can help the heartsick when they just can't seem to get over their last relationship.
Is "love addiction" a treatable disorder?
Hypothetically, a neurological basis for an addiction to love could point toward interventions that "correct" for it. If the narrow view of addiction is accurate, perhaps some people will be able to seek treatment for love addiction in the same way that others seek help to quit smoking. If the broad view of addiction is correct, the treatment of love addiction would be unlikely as it may be difficult to properly identify where the cutoff of acceptability on a spectrum should be.
Either way, since love is generally held in high regard by all cultures and doesn't quite seem to be in the same category as a bad cocaine habit in terms of social undesirability, the authors doubt we'll be treating anyone for "love addiction" anytime soon.
A school lesson leads to more precise measurements of the extinct megalodon shark, one of the largest fish ever.
- A new method estimates the ancient megalodon shark was as long as 65 feet.
- The megalodon was one of the largest fish that ever lived.
- The new model uses the width of shark teeth to estimate its overall size.
A Florida student figured out a way to more accurately measure the size of one of the largest fish that ever lived – the extinct megalodon shark – and found that it was even larger than previously estimated.
The megalodon (officially named Otodus megalodon, which means "Big Tooth") lived between 3.6 and 23 million years ago and was thought to be about 34 feet long on average, reaching the maximum length of 60 feet. Now a new study puts that number at up to 65 feet (20 meters).
Homework assignment leads to a discovery
The study, published in Palaeontologia Electronica, used new equations extrapolated from the width of megalodon's teeth to make the improved estimates. The paper's lead author, Victor Perez, developed the revised methodology while he was a doctoral student at the Florida Museum of Natural History. He got the idea while teaching students, noticing a range of discrepancies in the results they were getting.
Students were supposed to calculate the size of megalodon based on the ancient fish's similarities to the modern great white shark. They utilized the commonly accepted method of linking the height of a shark's tooth to its total body length. As the press release from the Florida Museum of Natural History expounds, this method involves locating the anatomical position of a tooth in the shark's jaw, measuring the tooth "from the tip of the crown to the line where root and crown meet," and using that number in an appropriate equation.
But while carrying out calculations in this way, some of Perez's students thought the shark would have been just 40 feet long, while others were calculating 148 feet. Teeth located toward the back of the mouth were yielding the largest estimates.
"I was going around, checking, like, did you use the wrong equation? Did you forget to convert your units?" said Perez, currently the assistant curator of paleontology at the Calvert Marine Museum in Maryland. "But it very quickly became clear that it was not the students that had made the error. It was simply that the equations were not as accurate as we had predicted."
Found in North Carolina, these 46 fossils are the most complete set of megalodon teeth ever excavated.Credit: Jeff Gage/Florida Museum
The new approach
Perez's math exercise demonstrated that the equations in use since 2002 were generating different size estimates for the same shark based on which tooth was being measured. Because megalodon teeth are most often found as standalone fossils, Perez focused on a nearly complete set of teeth donated by a fossil collector to design a new approach.
Perez also had help from Teddy Badaut, an avocational paleontologist in France, who suggested using tooth width instead of height, which would be proportional to the length of its body. Another collaborator on the revised method was Ronny Maik Leder, then a postdoctoral researcher at the Florida Museum, who aided in the development of the new set of equations.
The research team analyzed the widths of fossil teeth that came from 11 individual sharks of five species, which included megalodon and modern great white sharks, and created a model that connects how wide a tooth was to the size of the jaw for each species.
"I was quite surprised that indeed no one had thought of this before," shared Leder, who is now director of the Natural History Museum in Leipzig, Germany. "The simple beauty of this method must have been too obvious to be seen. Our model was much more stable than previous approaches. This collaboration was a wonderful example of why working with amateur and hobby paleontologists is so important."
Why use teeth?
In general, almost nothing of the super-shark survived to this day, other than a few vertebrae and a large number of big teeth. The megalodon's skeleton was made of lightweight cartilage that decomposed after death. But teeth, with enamel that preserves very well, are "probably the most structurally stable thing in living organisms," Perez said. Considering that megalodons lost thousands of teeth during a lifetime, these are the best resources we have in trying to figure out information about these long-gone giants.
Researchers suggest megalodon's large jaws were very thick, made for grabbing prey and breaking its bones, exerting a bite force of up to 108,500 to 182,200 newtons.
Megalodon tooth compared to two great white shark teeth. Credit: Brocken Inaglory / Wikimedia.
Limitations of the new model
While the new model is better than previous methods, it's still far from perfect in precisely figuring out the sizes of animals which lived so long ago and left behind few if any full remains. Because individual sharks come in a variety of sizes, Perez warned that even their new estimates have an error range of about 10 feet when it comes to the largest animals.
Other ambiguities may affect the results, such as the width of the megalodon's jaw and the size of the gaps between its teeth, neither of which are accurately known. "There's still more that could be done, but that would probably require finding a complete skeleton at this point," Perez pointed out.
How did the megalodon go extinct?
Environmental changes that led to fluctuations in sea levels and disturbed ecosystems in the oceans likely led to the demise of these enormous ancient sharks. They were just too big to be sustained by diminishing food resources, says the ReefQuest Centre for Shark Research.
A 2018 study suggested that a supernova 2.6 million years ago hit Earth's atmosphere with so much cosmic energy that it resulted in climate change. The cosmic rays that included particles called muons might have caused a mass extinction of giant ocean animals ("the megafauna") that included the megalodon by causing mutations and cancer.
Scientists, led by Adrian Melott, professor emeritus of physics and astronomy at the University of Kansas, estimated that "the cancer rate would go up about 50 percent for something the size of a human — and the bigger you are, the worse it is. For an elephant or a whale, the radiation dose goes way up," as he explained in a press release.
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.