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The State, the Internet, and Cyber Security with Peter Singer, Part VI
Asia Institute Seminar
The State, the Internet, and Cyber Security with Peter Singer, Part VI
  • By matthew
  • January 15, 2014, 10:17
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Peter Singer’s new book, Cybersecurity and Cyberwar: What Everyone Needs to Know, is published by Oxford University Press.
Peter Singer’s new book, Cybersecurity and Cyberwar: What Everyone Needs to Know, is published by Oxford University Press.


On January 2, Dr. Emanuel Pastreich, director of the Asia Institute, sat down with Peter Singer, director of the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence and a senior fellow in the Foreign Policy program of the Brookings Institute. Singer’s research focuses on three core issues: current US defense needs and future priorities, the future of war and the future of the US defense system. Singer lectures frequently to US military audiences and is the author of several books and articles, including his most recent book, Cyber Security and Cyber War ( This is the last in a six-part series.

Emanuel Pastreich: “In a recent article I wrote about the future of virtual reality. As it becomes less expensive, it will be possible to make up ten thousand or more virtual people and to make them mimetically convincing. That is to say, to give them all specific high schools they attended, parents, memories of childhood, etc. To create such a high level of resolution that you literally can no longer tell that they are virtual. I think that problem exists in tiny batches now. But, in five or ten years it might quite serious.”

Peter W. Singer, director of the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence and a senior fellow in the Foreign Policy program of the Brookings Institute.Peter W. Singer: “Yes. Well, now we are jumping into things that are quite beyond the book. But, they are absolutely fascinating. This idea about — perhaps where you are headed — the Turing test, in which essentially it is a computer capable of tricking a human. We are kind of there now.” 

Pastreich: “For example, if you create virtual reality now with some of these games out there, you can imagine that we are just a few years away in which that reality is really indistinguishable and, if you start to take the people in it, and give them full background, distinct personalities, somewhat like Bladerunner, programming the robot with a history of child memories and so on, then it will literally be impossible to tell the difference.” 

Singer: “Welcome to the twenty-first century! This is something that we wrestle with in the robotics world, but the problem looms in cyberspace, too. There is a vast array of both capabilities but also political, military, and business, legal, moral, and ethical questions that we thought were science fiction a generation ago, but they are now with us. And yet a century ago people back then had to figure out strange things like “horseless cars” and “flying machines.” Hopefully, we will muddle our way through in this century.

“The point of the book is that you simply cannot respond appropriately if you do not understand how cyberspace works, what its implications are, and why it matters. 

“I think of the parallel to the introduction of the horseless carriage. Many were astounded by this new thing and realized that they had to have something that they had never needed before when everyone rode horses, which was the strange thing called the traffic law. That change went beyond laws, extending to norms of conduct. In the United States, a man wrote a book about the proper way to drive a car; not technically but socially the proper way to drive. From that book we got the idea of two lanes, passing on a certain side, signaling before the turn. These were not just legal laws but also norms. 

“Yet, if you go back and look at it, some of the early laws on the government side were insane because they did not understand the technology. One of the early laws related to horseless carriages was that someone was supposed to walk in front of the car with a flag to let people know that it was coming. And when they got into an intersection and wanted to turn, they pulled out a flare and fired it into the sky. This made great sense in a world of horses but makes no sense in a world of cars. 

“There are similar proposals out there now about cyber security that one day we will look back on in the same way we do on the above example.” 

Pastreich: “I fully understand what you are saying. It is also possible that you have exponential technological change that you will start to run into gaps between what we experience and anything that we have ever encountered before. If you, for example, start to grow brain cells, in the tens of thousands or millions and sort of create a being, it is basically going to throw a monkey wrench into all of the assumptions we have.” 

Singer: “In my writing, what draws my attention is exactly those game-changing technologies, these disruptive technologies, ‘killer applications,’ however they are described. These are technologies that fundamentally alter the political, military, legal, business, and ethical discourse. 

“We have had these game-changing technologies before in history. They range from fire, the printing press, gunpowder, steam engine, to the atomic bomb and the computer. The difference today is that with the speeding up of technological change, they are coming at us faster and simultaneously happening in multiple domains. So, we are having a tough time keeping up with Moore’s Law in IT.

“In DNA sequencing the rate of change is now many times faster than Moore’s Law. In the past, for example, the steam engine took roughly one hundred years to spread around the world to the level of global use. With the Internet, an invention spreads in nanoseconds. It is tough for us to keep pace with this. It is particularly tough for older organizations such as stake governments or militaries or businesses. 

“They are having a difficult time keeping up with this level of change. To use an example in the book, the director of the FBI neither had a computer in his office nor an email account as late as 2001. As late as ‘9-11.’ Yet it is even a problem today. The secretary of Homeland Security, the agency responsible for cyber security in the United States, she told us earlier this year that she still does not use email. She did not think that it was useful. That sounds crazy, except, our newest supreme court justice revealed a few months ago that she is the only one on the Supreme Court who uses email. Eight of the other nine justices do not. The highest court in the land will ultimately resolve these core questions of security, privacy, rights, but its members have almost no working knowledge of common technologies. These show the challenges we face before us.”

This is the last part of the series. You can read the previous part here.