The Future of Violence: Robots and Germs, Hackers and Drones. Confronting a new age of threat
by Benjamin Wittes and Gabriella Blum

Basic Books 2015.
ISBN 978-0-465-08974-1 .

Reviewed by  Richard Austin   5/20/2015 

It's a truism that we live in a very dangerous world but how different are these dangers from those that have faced us in the past? Are they really all that different? Do they just affect the involved parties, or do they have broader implications that rise to the level of national policy and even the fundamental relationship between individuals and society?

Wittes and Blum assert that the disruptive technologies mentioned in the title pose fundamental questions because they enable mass empowerment. That is, the capability to cause widespread mayhem is no longer concentrated within the sphere of nations. We have all seen how individuals, small groups and nation states can use cyber means to create inconvenience; this potentially could cause damage of a crisis order. Our widespread dependence on accessible information technology make this possible. For example, production of malware does not require significant investment in supporting infrastructure or access to easily controlled tools or technologies: the basic tools of software development are sufficient to the task. Damaging attacks can be launched from anywhere on the planet, and their sources can be notoriously difficult to identify (the oft cited "attribution problem"). What is now true of the cyber realm is, in the authors' estimation, becoming true of both biotechnology and drones.

As noted earlier, matching mass empowerment is mass vulnerability. We are all vulnerable, as the frequency of identity theft graphically illustrates. Our dependence on technology for everything from communications, to commerce, to even the operation of aircraft makes us vulnerable to attack.

Traditionally, defense has been the exclusive purview of nations. Some even assert that defense is the fundamental reason why we organize ourselves into societies. With the infrastructures that support communications commerce, etc., largely in private hands, what role can the state play in effectively defending those infrastructures? And, if the state can no longer assure its people of adequate protection and defense, is the concept of the state as we know it outmoded? How can the state and its constituents cooperate to assure basic defense and protection?

Wittes and Blum tackle these complex issues and their implications in a lucid, well-reasoned presentation with many insights from history. Of particular note is their discussion of the background (Chapter 5) for Benjamin Franklin's oft cited quote "Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty or Safety" which reveals Franklin's thought to be much more nuanced than the typical presentation of a zero-sum tradeoff between liberty and safety. While avoiding the temptation to proscribe solutions, they map options for actions by the private and public sectors. While some options are, to put it mildly, controversial, a core insight is that the solutions to these issues will require close cooperation between both the public and private sector with a healthy reasoned debate regarding difficult choices (What role can regulation play? Should the state be able to conscript experts from the private sector? How do you balance the surveillance needed for effective situational awareness with concepts such as privacy and due process? ...). While I've talked most about the issues in the cyber realm, the book is notable for linking the issues across all the disruptive technologies mentioned in the title.

This is an important book because it lays out the broad implications of the current state of exigence in a clear and readable manner. I do not agree with many of the authors' proposals, but the dialog must be had and the authors deserve much credit for mapping the domain of discourse in such a comprehensive fashion. Buy this book. Read this book. Think about its content. And most importantly, talk about the issues it raises with people from all sides of the political spectrum. As the authors make so abundantly clear, we are all vulnerable, but we are all also critical players in the solution.

It has been said "Be careful, for writing books is endless, and much study wears you out" so Richard Austin ( fearlessly samples the wares of the publishing houses and opines as to which might most profitably occupy your scarce reading time. He welcomes your thoughts and comments via raustin at ieee dot org