Technology and the Weapons of War
Did you know that many of the technologies we use daily were originally developed by the military?
A few weeks ago I wrote about employees at major American tech companies who protested when their employers accepted military contracts from the American government. Employees at Microsoft, for example, protested against the company’s nearly $500million (R6.9billion) deal to supply the military with its augmented reality goggles, the HoloLens.
Similarly, employees at Google protested against the company’s bid for the $410bn Jedi, or Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure, cloud computing contract.
Google subsequently pulled out of the bid, but Microsoft defended its position on supplying the military with HoloLens headsets.
No doubt, the motivations of the protesting employees were commendable: they did not want their work being used for war. Microsoft’s employees stated in a petition that “we did not sign up to develop weapons, and we demand a say in how our work is used”. This sentiment was closely reflected by Google’s employees, who wrote in a letter to the company’s chief executive that “we believe that Google should not be in the business of war”.
Most companies are unfazed by employee protests, and have no qualms about accepting military contracts. While some play the patriotic card, others simply say they are doing what is best for their companies. Government contracts are big business, and landing one could set up a company for decades.
The issue is, who is right?
While most of us might side with the employees off the bat, and with good reason, it might make sense to reserve judgment until we examine the origins of many of the technologies we take for granted, like the good old computer.
Modern computers as we know them are derived from the “Turing Machine”, which was developed by Alan Turing and regarded as an early example of a multi-purpose computer, although it was extremely simple by today’s standards.
Turing developed his machine while working for the Government Code and Cypher School that served the British army during World War II. He developed the machine to help the British army decipher encrypted German messages.
Fast-forward a couple of decades, and the American military developed Eniac, which was a lot closer to modern computers than the Turing Machine. Eniac was a direct predecessor of Univac, the world’s first commercially available computer.
Fast-forward another couple of decades, and the US military designed a specialised data transfer network to enable computers at its various bases to transfer data between them.
This network was named Arpanet, and was to become the forerunner of what we now call the internet.
Just these two inventions – the computer and the internet – have transformed our world in ways that very few people have not been affected by. Twenty-first century civilisation is basically built on these technologies, and it is hard to imagine a world without them. But it doesn’t end there. A host of other technologies began life in the military before becoming commercially available.
It is difficult to imagine a world without artificial intelligence, global positioning systems (GPS), jet propulsion, duct tape, drones, weather radars, microwave ovens, digital cameras and synthetic rubber tyres; yet these are all military innovations.
As I sit typing this article 10km above the ground in an aeroplane bound for Istanbul, I cannot help but wonder how many aspects of my flight were made possible by military technology.
I also wonder whether I should be grateful for these technologies that have positively transformed our world in so many ways, or to be horrified by the untold pain and suffering caused by their inventors. While I acknowledge that many of the technologies we rely on today would either not exist or would have been decades behind were it not for the military, I am really not sure how to feel.
I guess there is no simple answer.