Like it or not, war and the threat of war have always been a positive stimulus for the development of new and better technology and leaps forward in scientific understanding. The Ottoman Empire was one of the great empires of history, persisting for over 600 years from the 14th century to the First World War.
At its zenith it straddled the former Byzantine empire of South East Europe, central Europe to the gates of Vienna and large swathes of the Arab-speaking world from the Middle East to North Africa. Over the early centuries of the Ottoman Empire, science, learning and technology flourished. The development of hospitals and hundreds of centres of learning called medreses led to advances in medicine, mining and military technology as well as arithmetic, philosophy and astronomy.
However, by the 17th century, Ottoman territories were no longer the hotbed of learning, science, medicine and technology they had been. Rather, Western Europe had moved significantly ahead and the Ottomans were importing and replicating technology from their neighbours with military technology of particular interest.
The last two or three centuries of the Ottoman Empire were marked by technological and scientific stagnation. Few, if any, significant discoveries originated from the territories of the once great empire and even the import of technologies from elsewhere didn’t work particularly well. The tradition of research and understanding had dwindled and without that, imported technologies and learning could not be effectively assimilated.
Why did the culture of the Ottomans towards technology, science and learning invert between the first and second stages of their 6 centuries of power? Three of near constant innovation, development and evolution and three of stagnation? Many historians believe that the defining factor was a simple one – peace. Over the first three centuries the Ottomans were on an expansion drive and at constant war.
This was so successful that the subsequent period was one during which the empire was so strong it was almost untouchable. After Budapest was taken towards the end of the 17th Century and Vienna was more or less given up on, the Ottomans protected their borders from an imperious position of military might. At first, peace was prosperous but as history has demonstrated from the Greek to Roman empires, peace and prosperity seems to inevitably lead to stagnation and decadence. Without the pressure of the prospect of war, these is no drive to develop.
Meanwhile, Western Europe, a patchwork of constantly warring smaller nation states, was in a period of dynamic scientific and technological advance. The result was the Renaissance and industrial revolution. The evidence is relatively clear cut. War and the threat of war stimulates investment in science and technology. Much of the technology developed for military application then has much wider ranging application in industry and commercial consumer products.
Things haven’t changed today and many of the technologies that the global economy is based upon have their roots in military research. GPS and satellite-based communications more generally, for example. Without those, Google Maps would never have developed and without Google Maps, digital technology empires from Airbnb to Uber would lack the underlying infrastructure that makes them possible. There is a long list of technologies first developed for the military that have gone on to shape the world’s economy for future generations. Nuclear power, the jet engine, digital photography, the internet and even duct tape were developed as a result of military investment. Imagine what today’s world would look like without these things.
In the modern world, venture capital, giant tech, telecoms giants, wealthy pharmaceuticals and biotech companies are also certainly contributing hugely to the development of the latest technology and science in the world in a more influential way than commercial interests led to in the past. To at least some extent that is the result of companies holding greater wealth than ever before. But military, and particularly in the case of China, government investment in ‘domestic security’, can still be expected to influence the development of new technologies. So what are the current military technologies that we might expect to see evolve into commercial, civilian applications that shape the future of the global economy and how we live day-to-day?
Robotics, Exoskeletons & Autonomous Vehicles
Many believe that if, and hopefully it won’t, World War III ever happens it will be fought between robots and cyber warfare with humans, at least in terms of direct combat, barely involved. Autonomous robots modelled on animal biology with legs rather than wheels or tracks are being developed by the U.S. military. They will be far more adaptable to multiple terrains such as crowded urban areas, rocky mountain areas and water. Small ‘Minitaur’ robots that scuttle around like crabs and are being created with a view to the deployment of bombs or scout out combat zones could be put to work in all kinds of civilian commercial environments such as sewer systems or to lay explosives in mining or construction.
While the thought of metal, robotic beasts of war leaping over obstacles and bounding around tight corners, futuristic weapons blazing, is a terrifying prospect, imagine how effective these robots could also be in a civilian environment. Search and rescue, police forces, fire brigades and even mining companies could all be transformed by this kind of military technology.
Exoskeleton limbs and full body suits to help human soldiers carry heavy weapons for long periods and provide protection against the futuristic military might of potential future enemies could also be put to hugely effective use in construction. As would the kinds of lasers being developed to take out missiles, drones, satellites and aircraft rapidly and at a distance.
These robots will of course work on the basis of advanced AI. Next generation and even more sophisticated evolutions of the kind of Deep Learning AI that will allow for autonomous vehicles such as driverless cars within a decade. It is believed that China’s AI technology will match that of the USA by 2025 and surpass it by 2030. The U.S. fear of its own military technology being over taken by the huge country is the tension currently fuelling a quiet technology-based arms race with a strong emphasis on AI. Russia’s Vladimir Putin has stated that whoever rules AI will, in the near future, rule the world.
China’s surveillance AI such as cameras that incorporate computer vision and sophisticated facial recognition has already spilled over into the civic space. Arrests have been made on the basis of cameras picking out individuals wanted by the state from crowded public spaces. Computer vision that can even identify someone on the basis of their walking gait now exists.
Outside of surveillance, AI is being developed that would allow drone swarms to coordinate attacks on much larger vehicles, such as fighter jets, in tight unison, making lightning fast decisions and splitting into sub-groups and then regrouping into one swarm. Robot humanoid soldiers will also operate autonomously through AI.
That kind of hugely sophisticated AI would mean all but the most creative of human jobs being taken over by robots 50 or 100 years from now. Few believe that kind of future economy, or a version of it, is not inevitable. And U.S. – China military tension will be one of the most influential catalysts. Hopefully without war actually ever breaking out. But again, as we’ve seen throughout history, even the threat of war and the attempts of global powers to dissuade rivals from entering into open conflict with them by outmatching them technologically, gives rise to technologies that also shape humanity in peace.