Technology shifts from entertainment to defence

From Mars to Morpheus and back again

As of August 2022, I have worked as a technology professional for 40 years. As a fresh-out-of-uni apprentice software engineer, that world of ‘technology’ didn’t look much like ours. Computers, still rare and very expensive, had not invaded our homes.

It would be another 30 years before they shrank into smartphones and colonised the ends of our arms. In the early 1980s, technology meant something big and powerful – which most often referred to something either with an explicit military purpose or a direct descendant of something with an explicit military purpose.

For all of history, technology and war have had a close relationship; each advance in technology carries the seeds of an arms race, as civilisations scramble to master the latest advance: bronze, iron, the stirrup, gunpowder, aircraft, radar – and, lately, the secrets of the atomic nucleus. The Second World War began with a cavalry charge in Poland, but ended in a mushroom cloud over Nagasaki.

In the early 1980s, technology meant something big and powerful.

The Cold War saw huge sums directed to the development of new technologies to maintain a balance between the superpowers. In the early 1960s, my aunt spent a few years writing code for systems which simulated the aerodynamics of an ICBM’s re-entry. That was what technology looked like during the 40 years of the Cold War, with each side feverishly throwing resources into an accelerating arms race which finally bankrupted the Soviet Union – and led directly to much of the technology of our 21st century world.

The internet remains the archetypal example of a technology originally developed for a military need – to keep America’s military systems well-connected while under massive thermonuclear attack – that later found endless non-military uses. Its original name, ARPAnet – after the US Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency – reflects that provenance. As a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union, these technologies experienced their own ‘liberation’ – finding their way into consumer devices.

WWII began with a cavalry charge in Poland, but ended in a mushroom cloud over Nagasaki.

Another DARPA focus of investment centred on systems that could be used to simulate and visualise data gathered from a battlefield in three-dimensions, in real-time. All modern computer graphics – such as can be found in any smartphone, laptop or PC – have their roots in these military simulators. Some of that tech found its way into the information-dense ‘heads up’ displays used by jet fighter pilots – but some also made its way over to NASA, where, by the mid-1980s, engineers had prototyped a ‘VIrtual Environment Workstation’. VIEW generated an immersive and interactive three-dimensional world, a tool astronauts on the space shuttle could use to rehearse their extravehicular activities before heading out the airlock. VIEW became the prototype for all ‘virtual reality’ systems that followed – indeed, they look little different today than that original model, now almost 40 years old.

As the Cold War petered out, the US and its allies took a ‘peace dividend’, slashed defence budgets, and settled into what they believed to be a triumphal ‘End of History’. At that pivotal moment, the technologies of the Cold War found their way into a new sort of arms race – the battle for attention. Video game consoles had been popular since the late 1970s, all the way back to Atari’s first Video Computer System. Sony changed everything with its first PlayStation, shoehorning some of the sophisticated real-time interactive 3D technologies developed for military simulation into an inexpensive device that could sit next to the family television.

The internet remains the archetypal example of a technology originally developed for a military need.

In an unexpected shift, the technologies of war reclothed themselves as the technologies of entertainment. Highly realistic three-dimensional graphics dominated the cinema in films like Jurassic Park and Toy Story, while more primitive but more engaging simulations like Tomb Raider and Gran Turismo delivered an engrossing (some would say addicting) experience to tens of millions in their homes. Another arms race – a ‘battle for the living room’ – pitted Sony’s PlayStation against Microsoft’s Xbox, as subsequent generations of consoles pushed semiconductor technologies to their limits.

By the early 2000s, consumer electronics had far outclassed all but the most sophisticated (and classified) of military systems. Morpheus, the god of dreams, had dazzled and swept past Mars. A current-generation smartphone contains circuits with nanometre-scale features, at least the equal of – and very likely better than – almost anything any military can buy from any weapons manufacturer.

Greek warrior covered in smartphones
DALL.E’s AI interpretation of the Greek god Ares clothed in armour built out of phones.

This power shift hadn’t gone unnoticed by those militaries. In the late 1990s I participated in the planning for the Institute of Creative Technologies at the University of Southern California, whose stated goal (and funding) came from the desire of the US military to have access to the creative talents and technological capabilities of the people designing systems not for battlefields, but for living rooms. Where entertainment led the way in technological development, the military would happily follow.

By the early 2010s, the lines between entertainment and battlefield began to blur. Advances in smartphone technology made virtual reality cheap and accessible, making augmented reality technically possible – seamlessly blending both virtual and real worlds. Militaries have long recognised they need augmented reality to drive integrated command-control-communication (CCC) systems for soldiers on the battlefield, giving them ‘heads up’ capabilities that would feel familiar to any player of a real-time ‘open world’ game such as Battlefield 2042.

The technologies of war reclothed themselves as the technologies of entertainment.

No individual characterises this Janus-like transition from Morpheus to Mars more than Palmer Luckey. A decade ago, at the age of 19, Luckey founded VR startup Oculus, launching his very first VR headset on Kickstarter – and raising more than a million dollars in the first 24 hours. What had been thought of as a moribund technology came roaring back to life as Sony and Microsoft, those eternal competitors, began work on their own VR systems. Two years later, Mark Zuckerberg bought Oculus for more than US$3 billion.

In October 2021, Palmer’s Oculus effectively ‘ate’ the core social media business of Facebook when Zuckerberg renamed the firm ‘Meta’ – after the ‘metaverse’ – the long-prophesied and still-far-from-real universal virtual world. But Palmer was already long gone, following a pendulum in technological development that after 30 years had begun to swing away from Morpheus and toward Mars.

A smartphone contains circuits very likely better than almost anything any military can buy.

Cashed up with Facebook money and not yet 25, Palmer cast around for his next act, realising that while “adversaries like Russia and China invested in cutting edge technologies – like artificial intelligence and robotics – in their military, I saw the United States falling behind… The people who really build this stuff for our militaries were not able to pull it off”.

Sony and Microsoft and Apple could build cutting edge hardware and software systems – driven by the desire to capture trillions of consumer dollars. Meanwhile, defence contractors got lost in the weeds of endless procurement cycles. None of the ‘startup mentality’ that drove the successes of Silicon Valley had found its way into the defence sector – so in 2017 Palmer founded his own defence startup, Anduril Industries (named after Aragorn’s famed sword from The Lord of the Rings), making the sorts of things you might not be surprised to find on the shelves of your average electronics retailer – but with a military edge…

Militaries have long recognised they need augmented reality.

“We build unmanned aerial vehicles, from surveillance drones to aerial interceptors that knock other drones out of the sky, we build ground based systems that tell you where all the vehicles, animals, boats and drones are at all times – communicating with each other, and making sure that all the humans and all the machines have the right information at the right time. We build underwater vehicles, where they’re able to dive up to 6000 meters deep all the way to the bottom of [almost] any part of the ocean.”

That last point has great salience for Australians. Anduril has inked a deal with the ADF to develop a fleet of XL-UAVs – extra-large underwater autonomous vehicles. If it works (one of the advantages of a startup approach is that results will be known in a year or two, rather than a decade or three) it could well be that Australia’s underwater borders soon will be under continuous surveillance by a fleet of hundreds, possibly even thousands of these ‘drone’ submarines. That’s only possible because Anduril repurposes technologies developed in the entertainment sector – everything from sensors to machine learning to communications – to military ends, like Mars fashioning its new armour from Morpheus’ dreams.

None of the ‘startup mentality’ that drove the successes of Silicon Valley had found its way into the defence sector.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – plus the ever-escalating threat of a forcible reunification of Taiwan with mainland China – have focused the minds of policy makers and military planners. Budgets will soon follow. Within this decade the focus of technology development could well swing decisively away from Morpheus and toward Mars.

We’ve been here before. In the first decades of the 20th century, all of the technologies of the industrial revolution – which delivered clothing, communication and comfort to tens of millions who had never known such luxuries before – found their way into the enginery of war deployed in Flanders and Verdun. We need to keep that in mind, as we rise, newly armed, from our comfortable sleep.

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