Will the Military’s A.I. End the World?

The year is 1983 As the Cold War runs hot, the US is faced with the very real threat of nuclear war with the Soviet Union

The US is uncomfortable with mutually assured destruction being their only defence, since their own men struggled to even turn the key during simulations Can computer technology and AI do the job instead? Or is that a dangerous game we should never play? David Lightman is your typical high school student He flunks biology, flirts with the girls in his class, and sets the world on a path to nuclear obliteration After hacking into NORAD, the military facility monitoring US air space for potential threats, David asks an AI called WOPR to play ‘Global Thermonuclear War’ with him, mistaking the program for a video game David picks the Soviet side, WOPR plays the US

However, WOPR, not knowing the difference between reality and a game, intends to win at any cost After David’s meddling is discovered, the US military take him into custody, believing him to be a Russian spy However, WOPR continues the simulation, feeding false data to force the US to strike the Soviets David escapes custody on a tourist bus and finds his friend Jennifer, who helps him evade the authorities and find the creator of WOPR, Dr Stephen Falken After some persuasion, Falken helps them return to NORAD so they can stop WOPR

Together, they help the commanders at NORAD convince the rogue AI that thermonuclear war is a game you cannot win The only winning move is not to play In WarGames, they want to replace incompetent humans with artificial intelligence I’m the one who has to explain to the President why 22% of his missile commanders failed to launch their missiles When it comes to ordering a nuclear attack, the US president has the final say

However, there are safeguards in place to stop POTUS from just nuking anyone he fancies Article 1 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice states that only Congress can declare war The President might be the highest ranked member of the military, but since the military answers to Congress, so must he Furthermore, the 1887 Caroline Case states the President can only use military force without the rule of Congress in self defense under the threat of imminent attack Yet there have been instances when officers defied a nuclear launch order

Harold Hering was a US Air Force officer during the Nixon administration who questioned the line of command He was discharged after asking, ‘How can I know that an order I receive to launch my missiles came from a sane president?’ To circumvent officers like Hering disobeying the President, no one man is left in charge of nuclear launches The film correctly shows two people are needed at a station to turn keys, and in real life each launch has 5 of these stations, but only needs two of them to comply with the launch orders Therefore to prevent a launch more than 6 people must disobey the order No launch officer ever knows the target, and all are drilled hundreds of times

When a drill occurs, everyone, including other countries, is made aware of when a drill is just a drill It is difficult to hide these exercises, since they aren’t normally held at the real silos Yet they can still be misinterpreted, and this is what makes WarGames so spookily relevant In the same year the film was released, NATO staged a realistic drill called Able Archer 83 It was so realistic that it convinced the Soviet Union NATO was about to attack

If a drill like that can nearly start World War 3, one conducted at the real missile silos where missileers don’t know the difference would be even riskier! Yet again in 1983, Soviet missile detection systems identified a single ballistic missile launched from the US at the Soviet Union With only a hunch to go on, Lt Colonel Stanislav Petrov flagged this as a false alarm, preventing a retaliatory attack and a full Thermonuclear War There was no way Petrov could have known the alert was the result of a faulty satellite system The worry is that, if an AI were faced with Petrov’s situation, crisis might not be averted

Currently, Artificial Intelligence is designed to find the most effective ways to complete its designated tasks In Petrov’s position, an AI like WOPR would not have questioned the readings from the other failing machine Also, if the AI felt it could win, then our current nuclear deterrent strategy, Mutually Assured Destruction, would be undermined This was a concern raised by the RAND Strategy Assessment Center, which conducted wargame simulations akin to those run in the film by WOPR In fact, an incident that inspired the entire plot of WarGames happened at the real NORAD in 1979

The North American Aerospace Defense Command is located at Peterson Air Force Base, and at the Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station like in the film Here, a training scenario was accidently loaded onto the operational computer, and it reported up to 2200 ballistic missiles were inbound from Soviet Union Thankfully, NORAD satellites managed to confirm the error, minutes before America’s missiles were to be launched The only thing missing from this real incident was the teenage hacker One thing WarGames may have been naive about is the nature of hackers gaining access to US Military systems

In the film, it’s an accident resulting from a kid showing off to a girl, but in reality, nuclear arsenals are threatened by malicious cyber attacks on a regular basis Many of these silos were created in the 80s, so as time moves on and technology advances, the systems maintaining these weapons become obsolete and weak without regular upgrades In 2017, Britain’s largest aircraft carrier, the HMS Queen Victoria, was found to still use the obsolete OS Windows XP in its main control panel This same system left Britain's National Health Service open to a massive ransomware attack WHEN that shut down the system There is also a serious concern that nuclear submarines still run on Windows XP, since they were commissioned in the 1990s, when XP was still the standard

Funnily enough, WarGames had a genuine influence on US policy President Ronald Reagan was such a huge fan of the film, it inspired him to question the vulnerability of the government's computer systems to potential hackers He found that their systems could have been hacked in very similar ways to those in the film, via war dialing and backdoor encryptions Reagan was shocked that a Hollywood film could display better technical knowledge than his own government institutions Eighteen months after seeing the film, Reagan issued NSDD-145, the first Presidential directive on computer security

Of course, human incompetence could also cause a nuclear incident In 2013, 17 US Air Force commanders were stripped of their authority to launch nuclear missiles According to an Air Force spokesman, this was because their units performed so poorly on inspection results, that their incompetence compromised the security of real nuclear launch codes Then there is the constant threat of a ‘broken arrow’ This is the US term used to describe an accident with a nuclear weapon that doesn’t risk an immediate nuclear war, but poses a risk to the public

This can include a near detonation, or loss of such weapons There have been 32 known broken arrow cases in the US alone According to various sources, between 50 and 100 nuclear weapons could have been lost overall Most of these are in the ocean from sunken ships, submarines, or crashed planes The world’s superpowers have spent a lot of time and money trying to retrieve these with little success

The chances of a rogue state or terror group finding one that still works after deteriorating in the ocean for years are very low Humanity has faced the brink of extinction more times than you might expect, and those are just the instances we know about WarGames accurately represents the problems and practicalities of nuclear war in the 1980s Its technical knowhow introduced the world to the possibility of cyber warfare, and the very real vulnerabilities that, sadly, still pose a threat to nuclear arsenals across the world today The writers of WarGames could not have known the world of today, but they sharply observed the fundamental challenges it faces

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