Many of the scientists, hardware engineers and software specialists that I have met are all hoping that their contributions to the wider progress of technology will make the world a much better, nicer and safer place for us all. Sadly, that hasn’t always been the case as the scientific and engineering endeavours of some individuals, that may have been well meaning at the onset, have had to witness their work being implemented in such a way to cause destruction and death.
Two notable examples that come to mind are Robert Oppenheimer and Mikhail Kalashnikov. One American, one Russian; both who publicly regretted their scientific and engineering contribution to society.
Oppenheimer who has the dubious legacy of being referred too, with others, as the “father of the atomic bomb” was the wartime head of the Los Alamos Laboratory and it was his role in the World War II ‘Manhattan Project’ that led to the development of the world’s first nuclear weapons which were then used to such devastating effect in the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. For years after the war he would openly question the morals of weapons of mass destruction.
Similarly, in Russia Mikhail Kalashnikov developed the formidable Ak-47 assault rifle, that is believed to have caused more deaths than artillery fire, airstrikes and rocket attacks combined. An estimated quarter of a million people are gunned down by bullets from Kalashnikovs every year. It was reported that six months before Kalashnikov died, in December 2013, that he wrote to the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, stated that he was suffering “spiritual pain” about whether he was responsible for the deaths caused by the weapons he created. In 2014 the firearms company that still is labelled with his name developed a new slogan : Kalashnikov, Promoting Peace & Calm. I’m sure all those victims who saw the wrong end of an AK-47 never felt more peaceful and calm!
The weaponisation of the internet continues as countries around the world develop both defensive and offensive capabilities online. Will this lead to the computing pioneers and fathers of modern computing coming to regret their innovations too? Some sadly have already departed and will never bear witness to how cyber security, cyber defence, cyber war and other activities will develop, but will Bill Gates (Microsoft), John Chambers (Cisco), Larry Page and Sergey Brin (Google) and others look back on their technical legacy with any regret?
From what I can discover smart phones, software, networking equipment or internet technologies are not directly responsible for widespread destruction, or death, however they are used extensively by both the defence departments and ministries of all major nations and by their adversaries. A report published by the Sans Institute in 2002 titled “Can Cyberterrorists Actually Kill People?” stated that Allied forces sorting through the rubble of Afghanistan had shown without a doubt that Osama bin Laden’s terrorist organisation used information technology to gather and disseminate information, train attackers, plan their attacks, finance their operations, gloat over their successes and receive real-time guidance in overcoming mission obstacles. But in the end, the terrorists accomplished their goals of killing and terrorising citizens by blowing things up. In return, while the Allied forces relied heavily on networked systems to unleash their military assault on Taliban and Al Qaeda forces, again the end result was to blow things up with conventional bombs and bullets.
Has this changed significantly in the last 14 years since this report was written? Probably not, but could this be a modern take on the old phrase quoted by many pro-gun ownership bodies who say, “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people”. In years to come will we see technology advocacy bodies stating that “Cyber technology doesn’t kill people, people kill people.” – I hope not.
The major difference as I see it between the past and now is that although there is a small section of the world’s population that are intent on using technology for offensive aims, the vast majority of individuals, companies and organisations understand that technology can enrich, enthuse, educate and develop a new culture of understanding and acceptance. Despite what we may all think, we are still very much at the dawn of the technology revolution. With continued development and progression what will it be like another 50 years from now? I’m confident that at that point the threat of cyber war will have long since faded and that cyber security will be at a level to cause no greater concern to citizens than any other other risk that is present in everyday life.
Sadly, there will be victims, of one sort of another from cyber related incidents, but they will never be on such a physically destructive scale as those caused by the inventions of Oppenheimer or Kalashnikov. Today’s creators of the technical and engineering marvels that we all use will I’m sure look back on their contributions to the world with greater moral satisfaction. Some may have regrets, but as the song goes, they will be too few to mention.