TLDR; I just discovered Skynet is actually a thing. But it turns out it’s been a thing since 1969.
Those who have subscribed to my newsletter will know I have an inkling about a major new blind spot developing in markets. It’s one I do hope I’m wrong about though.
I’m going to loosely refer to postings connected to this inkling as WW3 Watch. They will skew towards defence matters, and try and catch us all up on the more esoteric areas of the industry, from aerospace and space to naval matters and tactical weapons capability.
Did you know the Shetland Islands were developing space launch capability? If you did well done. Because I didn’t. I find this development (allegedly Dominic Cummings influenced) very intriguing. What’s more, there’s not just one space-focused project being advanced across Scottish Wicker Man territories but two. The other one is in Sutherland. The UK it turns out is a satellite industry leader. While I think that somewhere in the back of my mind I knew this, I didn’t appreciate the scale.
It was while I was researching the above that I happened to stumbled across something a tad more unnerving. It came in the shape of the MoD’s latest Defence Space Strategy release on February 1, entitled Operationalising the Space Domain.
Okay, maybe unnerving is the wrong word. Bizarre might be a better one.
What first caught my eye was this little chunk about the “dual use” nature of space centred technologies (my emphasis):
The diverse selection of companies and organisations offers access to a range of commercial technological developments with the potential for dual-use application, which Defence may wish to simultaneously utilise and protect from proliferation. As a high-growth, high-skills sector, there are opportunities for Defence to redefine its procurement processes to maximise collaboration to improve recruitment and retention of scarce skills across the sector. In addition, with so much private investment and more governments aspiring to deliver ambitious space programmes, there will be opportunities to maintain strategic advantage through development of fast-paced, emerging technologies.
We will ensure that we embed dual use at the heart of our capability management processes, considering how we can share Defence space capabilities and outputs with other government departments, including the security and intelligence services, as well as potentially, with commercial users. In order to get best value for money, we will critically assess what capabilities we must own on a sovereign basis, those for which we can collaborate with our allies and partners (with the added benefits of generating mass and burden sharing), and those we can access via the commercial market. This ‘own, collaborate or access’ framework will be used to define the UK approach to every aspect of space capability, remaining coherent with the approach detailed in the IR.
“Dual use” is a weird sounding jargon phrase I first came across as part of my research into gain-of-function methodoloy and the biodefense sector.
What it loosely describes is a scenario where a technology or system can be as easily deployed to do good (protection) as it is to do bad (attack). It’s just the intention of the user that determines which. Critically, though, there’s no way of knowing from the evidence on the ground which one is more likely.
Coming from the finance world the concept of dual use systems really struck a chord. I’ve long argued that innovation is too often considered solely a force for good within the sector. Criminals, I often say, are extremely innovative people. They are frequently able to exploit new tech developments before users have learned to properly grasp them.
Did the UK just create Skynet?**
It was about then I stumbled across the following in the report (my emphasis):
We will continue to develop new capabilities fit for the information age within a balanced Defence Space Portfolio. We will exploit the current and future opportunities offered by space technologies and UK industrial strength, as well as identifying opportunities for military/civil dual use. We will deliver the Skynet 6 programme, for which we are already investing more than £5Bn over the next 10 years, to further enhance the UK’s secure Satellite Communications capability and ensure the continued capacity to move large volumes of data to support Defence tasks and government activities.
Wait, what? Did I read that correct? Apparently so because a few pages later came the following explainer box:
Skynet is a multi-billion pound strategic Defence satellite communications capability. It supports national prosperity and resilience through the provision of data to enable the full range of Defence tasks and support to government activities, at home and abroad. As threats and associated vulnerabilities increase, we must consider how we monitor the environment around Skynet, ensuring we protect the capability and have the ability to respond when needed.
So, yeah. The UK has created a multi-billion pound strategic defence sat system which has the capability to interoperate with compatible “allied” systems. They say this will enhance the UK’s satellite comms capability to “better deliver our military objectives, support government activities and provide NATO with satellite communication provisions alongside France, Italy and the US until 2035” … and they have decided to call it, wait for it… SKYNET (!!??)*
How did that conversation even go?
MoD official: “We need a new name for our strategic defence satellite system that has the capability to trigger Nato into initiating an assured mutual destruction attack on the world. Anyone got any ideas?”
Official: “Well, it sounds a bit like the plotline to Terminator.”
MoD official: “Terminator? Never heard of it. Is it any good?”
Official: “Hell yeah. And it stars Arnold Schwarzeneger.”
MoD official: “Is ‘this Skynet’ effective in the film?”
Official: “Is it effective? Hell, yeah!”
MoD: “Okay then, let’s go with Skynet.”
Official: “Wait, you should probably know that…”
MoD: “No time! We’ve got to get this done before Brexit!”
And just when you thought Skynet itself was messing with the system, Terminator director James Cameron makes the worthy point that if a superintelligent AI were to overthrow humanity its battle plan would like be just that cunning and mischievous.
As Cameron noted to the BBC a couple of weeks ago:
“All Skynet would have to do is just deepfake a bunch of people, pit them against each other, stir up a lot of foment, and just run this giant deepfake on humanity,” Cameron told The BBC in an interview last week.
He brought up the topic while discussing the threat of AI-generated “deepfake” videos, which can manipulate someone’s face to say something else. Cameron fears the same technology could be abused to cause political chaos or start a war. To make his point, he referenced Skynet, the evil artificial intelligence from the Terminator franchise, which originally wipes out half of humanity through a nuclear strike.”
Which begs the question what other “dual use” system is out there hiding in plain site that a satelite system gone bad could plug into if it wanted to kill off humanity?
The answer is obviously the media.
As one wise JASON told me, we always expect the next war to be like the last. But this is a very silly assumption. Criminals easily adopted digital tools and social engineering methods, so there’s no reason to think generals and soldiers won’t do so too. If that’s true, this leaves the conventional mainstream media in a very precarious position.
To properly appreciate the vulnerability I recommend a great book by Heidi Tworek called News from Germany. It beautifully explains how attempts to build the most powerful and efficient communication empire during the Weimar period backfired when the Nazis took over and were able to deploy the tech for malevolent purposes.
As the description reads:
Imperial leaders, and their Weimar and Nazi successors, nurtured wireless technology to make news from Germany a major source of information across the globe. The Nazi mastery of global propaganda by the 1930s was built on decades of Germany’s obsession with the news.
The moral of the story is that a system that had been created to keep people properly informed and enlightened proved far easier — due to its all-encompassing and centralised nature — to coopt and weaponise for evil purposes. What was once an asset very quickly became a liability. Had it been less centralised, it might not have fallen so easily.
The larger lesson here is that from finance, to comms, to Skynet, we know scale helps us achieve efficiency. But that efficiency also creates vulnerabilities. We control for these by introducing human override systems or regulations. When these slow things down too much, however, mass bureaucracies re-emerge, stifiling further growth of the system. The system then either self-destructs or finds a way to innovate its way out of the quagmire. YOU ARE HERE.
*The original Terminator Skynet supposedly became self aware in 1997. But then Judgment Day was postponed by Sarah Connor. And the date’s been dancing about ever since.
UPDATE** I am being informed that via Twitter that the UK MoD first launched Skynet in 1969, so it’s not the case of life imitating art, but art imitating life. A closer read reveals the MoD report is talking about a £5bn further investment for Skynet 6 over the next 10 years. Still shocked and surprised I didn’t know Skynet was a thing though.