The most important paradigm of power in the world today is computation.
For a long time we have heard that computers are going to revolutionize every aspect of our lives, but only recently in seeing the accelerating speed with which the personal computer, the internet, and the smartphone have revolutionized our lives have the majority of people come to see the rising tide of technological change.
Nonetheless, even as peck away at magical little devices in the palms of our hands, even as we feel the water around our feet we still think we are safe on dry land. We stare out at a rising ocean of possibility, yet we need to believe that our world is solid, that it is more or less the same as it has always been. Computers are neat, but ultimately old paradigms of power like military strength, business, politics, and money still rule the world, right?
The ability to perform computation has become the most important nexus of power in the 21st century. In the same way that power in earlier centuries was determined by who had control of key natural resources like gold or oil, power in the 21st century will be determined by whoever has the best access to computation and the accouterments that enable it, such as networking. In the modern age it is he who wields the most computation who will have the competitive edge, in war, in business, and in politics.
Put simply, computation is power.
Envisioning what a full-scale war effort between fully modernized states might look like provides the perfect example to consider the importance of computation.
Imagine the economic damage that could be done by interrupting the ability of an enemy to send money electronically from one place to another, or if you were to shut down enemy telecommunications networks. Digital attacks could be used against key infrastructure, such as electrical generating facilities or specific factories which are producing weapons. Even if these facilities are not directly connected to the internet, they could be vulnerable to more creative kinds of attacks (see the Stuxnet virus which traveled on USB drives to access Iranian nuclear production facilities in 2010).
Ultimately the question of how devastating a cyber attack could be on a modern nation can be answered with a specific question: How devastating would an extended interruption of internet communications be to you? How well would you cope if you had no access to your smart phone, email, or computer for a couple of days? a week? a month?
Clearly, cyber warfare is a combat space which suddenly just is as important as the land, air, or sea but the ability to wage such warfare in this day and age is really more about the talent of hackers involved in your cyber warfare program than about raw computation. So, we must go deeper to answer the question as to how raw computation could translate into military power.
The most obvious answer here is that raw computation opens up avenues for code-breaking that would enable more advanced forms of cyber warfare. In addition to this though, there are more exotic possibilities which could be opened up by the application of big data and massive computation leveraged against an enemy state. If you can understand your enemy better, you can predict what your enemy is likely to do.
For instance, you could analyze based on satellite data how much activity is happening at various resource collection sites and factories and estimate what kind of weapons systems your enemy is increasing production of. Similar big data analytics could tell you how happy the populace is based on how busy their cities are, how much food supplies they have, or any number of other metrics which give important insight to the operation of an enemy economy.
Big data and big computation could also be leveraged in more subtle ways against an enemy. The use of algorithmic propaganda to massage the public mood and political support for the war could be a real game changer. Using algorithms to massage the flow of information from news sites to various to individuals could be used a foment uprisings in one part of a country or depressing people’s interest in the war in other parts.
Known as micro-targeting, this kind of highly targeted campaigning has been used to push individuals in one direction or the other during political campaigns. At this point the technique of micro-targeting is still in its infancy, but as big data and big computation starts to come to bear in the micro-targeting industry this could start to represent a real super-weapon of sorts. Whether used on an enemy nation or on the people at home, an algorithm which can understand how to subtly manipulate people’s political views will offer unprecedented power for those who can control it.
In the world of business, computational power is already providing the same kinds of advantages that it will in war or in politics. Ask any salesman, and they will tell you that it is just as important to understand your customer as it is to understand your product. You can sell anything to someone who you understand. With the reams of data which we pump into Google and Facebook every day, the companies which can turn data into successful sales models are already the ones reaping the profits, and this trend will only continue on into the future.
Just as in war, businesses might also bring computational power to bear against enemy corporations. For instance, a company which has access to the information necessary to predict the who might be the most effective employees in a rival company could orchestrate a campaign of employee poaching aimed specifically at disruption of their rival. They could also attempt to interrupt supply chains, or devise a counter-marketing strategy to specifically target individuals likely to purchase from their competitor.
The fact is that it is not difficult to conjure up countless ways in which big data can combine with powerful computation to produce new strategies in any discipline or field. Computation means power in the 21st century because it is through computation that we can better understand the world. It could be argued that computation has always been the dominant paradigm of power since the emergence of higher animals. The ability to recognize patterns and make somewhat accurate predictions about what is going to happen in a given situation is what gave rise to increasing brain size. It’s been survival of the smartest since the very beginning.
In today’s world, as machine learning advances in leaps and bounds and big data pours out like an open tap, it is those with the best computers who will best understand the world… and control it.