P.W. Singer on Open-Source Warfare

Question: What is open-source warfare?

Singer:    Open source warfare is one of these things that’s taking place right now in the 21st century where you have a wide variety of actors out there.  War is not just limited to large states.  Just like with the software industry on open source, it’s not just limited to the control of a couple of large companies, but rather you have multiple players out there.  So, for example, in the military robotics realm, it’s not just the US military that’s building and using this system, 43 other countries are building and using them.  And they’re from large states like China or Russia to weaker states like Pakistan.  Iran’s working on them.  But the other thing is that it’s not just states, it’s non-state actors.  So in terms of non-state actors, you’ve had, for example, Hezbollah during its war with Israel in 2007, it wasn’t just a state taking on a non-state organization but it was also revolutionary because both sides used unmanned drones against each other.  You have Jihadi websites where you can remotely detonate an IED sitting at your home computer.  And what we’re getting out here is that multiple players can enter this realm.  For a thousand dollars, you can build a drone that’s basically has the same capabilities that the US military raven drone has.  This is the handheld drone that the soldiers use in Iraq.  For thousand dollars, you can build it with a do-it-yourself kit.  And so, what you have is sort of the flattening of the realm of war.  And that has to scare us in a certain way because it means that these trends of the empowerment of smaller and smaller organizations but all the way down to individuals can continue.  And one of the people that I interviewed for the book was Richard Clark, who was the government official who famously warned about 9/11 before it happened, asked him about, you know, where do you see this trend of robotics new technology and conflict going, and he said, “It’s not just the concern over all these organizations starting to use robotics and how it empowers them, how an Al-Qaeda can do a lot more things with a drone than it could without.  It’s also that it might cause new sparks of conflict new [IB], people who are so upset about change that they take out violence to try and prevent change.”  Another way of putting it is he saw the future as being a mix between Al-Qaeda 2.0 and the Unabomber.

Question: How can the US adapt its foreign policy to confront open-source warfare?

Singer:    As Dr. Phillip say you can’t be in denial and that’s where we are at right now.  We are in denial.  The sands are shifting underneath us and that’s true whether you’re talking about large [meditrends].  Like we’re finally starting to accept, for example, that global warming is happening, but we have to take it to the next step.  What are the implications of that on international security?  So what does it mean, not just the Arctic is melting, but what is the world look like when you have competition over those resources.  The same thing when it comes to these new technologies.  We act as if robotics are just mere science fiction or we have 5,000 drones in the air and 12,000 on [man ground] systems, and this is where we are right now.  If you speak to a Three-Star Air Force General said to this… Sorry, [let me] roll back on that chunk…  A Three-Star Air Force General said to me, “Look, where the trends are taking us very soon is to tens of thousands of robots fighting in our conflicts.”  That’s the reality right now.  And so you can either have your head in the sand or you can face it.  And so, you’ve got to figure out all of the challenging questions that surround it in terms of your politics, in terms of your law, in terms of your ethics, you have to catch up to it.  Because, otherwise, we’re going to repeat the same mistake that we made in past revolutions, in past times of great transitions.  The atomic bomb will be a great example of that where it was something that we kept in the realm of science fiction.  In fact, the atomic bomb was something that H. G. Wells first came up in a story called “World Set Free”.  And the science of today said no, no, no, this could never happen.  You can never have a bomb that was made out of radioactive materials and used the chain reaction as he called.  That’s crazy.  Well, guess what, it did happen and, in fact, his story was inspirational to the people behind the Manhattan Project.  But, it was like Pandora’s Box.  We only waited to deal with it until after the fact and all the ways that it was going to ripple out on our politics and our society.  And the same thing is happening right now with robotics, and we often sort of laugh at it, because you know what, it’s things like “The Terminator,” of “Battlestar Galactica”.  And I’m not saying here that you have to worry about the Governor of California showing up at your door.  That’s not the robotics revolution that’s ongoing.  It’s a revolution in warfare.  It’s a revolution that’s having a ripple effect out on to how we fight and who fights at the most fundamental level.

The author describes what happens when state and non-state actors use the same technologies.

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Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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