Stanislav Petrov was a Lieutenant Colonel of the Soviet Strategic Rocket forces manning a nuclear attack early warning system. On September 26 1983 the equipment he was monitoring reported that five American missiles had been launched against the Soviet Union.
This event happened just three weeks after Russian planes had shot down a Korean airliner filled with civilians, including many Americans, killing all onboard. Cold war tensions were in the air, with President Reagan of the U.S. labeling the Soviet Union an “evil empire”.
The early warning system reported a high degree of confidence that an attack was underway. Petrov had less than 30 minutes to decide whether the attack was real before an incoming strike would hit Russia. With only minutes left before he would be forced to alert the high command, Petrov concluded the warning was a false alarm, based in part on the fact that only 5 incoming missiles were being reported by the system, an improbable number.
Had Petrov listened to the early warning system and immediately reported the warning up the chain of command as he was supposed to do, the highest ranking Soviet leaders would have had only a few minutes to decide whether to launch their own missiles before they were lost. Under such enormous pressure they most likely would have given the order for a retaliatory Russian launch of missiles against the U.S.
The error occurred because the Russian early warning satellite mistook sunlight on the clouds for the plumes of rising missiles.
In January of 1995 American and Norwegian scientists launched a rocket carrying scientific equipment off of the northwestern coast of Norway. The purpose of the launch was to study the aurora borealis.
The trajectory of the rocket traveled through air space that may have been used in the case of an American attack on Russia. The launch was picked up by a Russian early warning radar station and was misinterpreted as a possible surprise attack by American submarines.
This misinterpretation caused a full alert to be sent up the Russian military chain of command who in turn alerted Russian President Boris Yeltsin. They brought Yeltsin the nuclear briefcase he would use to launch a retaliatory nuclear strike. Russian submarines were put on alert and ordered to prepare for a possible launch of their missiles.
Before Yeltsin ordered his missiles to launch the radar stations concluded the research rocket was heading away from Russia and the crisis was over.
The scientists had informed Russia ahead of time that they would be launching a research rocket but the message was never passed on to the Russian radar stations, thus leaving them in the dark about the true nature of the rocket they were observing.
We might recall that President Yeltsin had more than a little bit of a problem with alcohol. Just a few months before this incident when Yeltsin was in Washington for his first meeting with President Clinton, Yeltsin wandered drunk out on to Pennsylvania Avenue wearing only his underwear trying to hail down a taxi so he could go get some pizza.
Let us be forever grateful that it wasn’t that Yeltsin whom the Russians generals brought the nuclear briefcase to.
On the last page we talked about how the development of knowledge feeds back upon itself creating an ever accelerating process of knowledge acquisition which is often called the knowledge explosion.
On this page let’s explore why the accelerating nature of knowledge development matters, and how this process is related to our concerns about nuclear weapons.
A Factory Assembly Line
The knowledge explosion might be compared to a factory assembly line. For centuries this knowledge factory ran pretty slowly so we were able to keep up as each new knowledge product rolled off the end of the assembly line. About 500 years ago the assembly line started speeding up, and in the 20th century this ever accelerating knowledge development process began to dominate human society.
As powerful new technologies arrived on the scene in the 20th century they often raised complex questions which have to be addressed by human judgment.
As example, consider all the unanswered and often controversial questions which still surround the issues of nuclear weapons and nuclear power. 75 years after we learned how to split the atom we still haven’t figured out how to best manage the awesome nuclear powers which science has given us.
More And More Challenging Questions
And while we’ve been scratching our heads and debating all the options with nuclear technology, the knowledge explosion hasn’t slowed down and waited for us to catch up. It has instead continued to accelerate and deliver ever more knowledge and ever more powerful technology at an ever faster pace.
Since 1945 a tsunami of other new technologies like transistors, bar codes, lasers, solar cells, internet, genetic engineering, microwaves, fiber optics, television, space exploration, integrated circuits, computer-aided design, LEDs, e-commerce, AI, personal computers, mobile phones and more have exploded on to the scene.
All these new technologies have an impact upon society and thus require the application of human judgment so that their influence will hopefully be more positive than negative.
We’re increasingly faced with judgment questions our ancestors couldn’t have imagined. Should you let your kids watch violent TV programs? How much time is healthy to spend on the Internet? Do cell phones bring us together, or drive us apart? Should we spend money on going to Mars, or use it to improve schools?
Some of these new technologies, like artificial intelligence and genetic engineering for example, are incredibly powerful and raise profound questions about their impact upon the future of the human race. The larger such questions get the more challenging it is for us to evaluate the opportunities and the risks.
But wait, there’s no time for making thoughtful well considered judgments about AI and genetic engineering right now, because here comes even more new powerful technologies down the knowledge assembly line. More and more of them. Of ever larger scale. Faster, and faster, and faster.
Factory Workers, Falling Behind
We’re factory workers standing at the end of a knowledge assembly line which keeps going faster and faster, and delivering ever larger powers in to our hands. Our job is to make well considered judgments about how these new powers should fit in to our society. But the questions we must address keep getting bigger and bigger, and the time we have to find good answers keeps getting shorter and shorter.
Imagine that you’re on a game show and the questions you have to answer keep getting harder and harder, and they’re coming at you faster and faster. Even if you’re really smart sooner or later you’re not going to be able to keep up, right?
And so it is with an ever accelerating knowledge explosion. So long as the knowledge assembly line keeps running at an ever accelerating pace it’s only a matter of time until one or more of the new powers of ever growing scale slip from our control, crashing the assembly line and bring the knowledge development process to an end.
If this sounds like alarmist futuristic speculation, consider this. We currently have thousands of hydrogen bombs aimed down our own throats, and after 75 years we still have figured out how to pull this gun out of our mouth. As of today, right now, everything we care about can be erased in less than an hour.
Any reader willing to face this enormous fact will see that this article isn’t just speculating about the future, it’s also discussing the reality of where we are today. As you read this, we’re already right on the very edge of being out of control of our future.
The bottom line is that while it is the nature of knowledge to expand at an exponential rate, human wisdom grows incrementally at best. And so the gap between the power available to us and our ability to successfully manage that power is ever widening.
How do we regain control of our destiny? Let’s explore this question on the next page.
Each nuclear weapons state claims it has nuclear weapons so as to prevent it’s enemies from using their nukes, a strategy called deterrence. If you bomb me I will bomb you back, thus you will never bomb me, or so the reasoning goes. This scheme is often called “MAD”, short for mutually assured destruction.
In order for deterrence to be successful in preventing global nuclear war and the collapse of modern civilization, the MAD strategy will have to work successfully every single day for so long as these weapons exist. Given that there is currently no credible plan for global disarmament, or even much discussion of such a prospect, for the time being we are counting on the MAD deterrence plan to work every day forever.
Thousands of years of persistent human conflict and FUBAR screw ups would seem to prove beyond any doubt that achieving the perfect record of success that deterrence requires is a fantasy. It’s simply not rational to assume that we can keep such powerful weapons around forever and they will never be used.
Deterrence is based on the inaccurate idea that we can accurately detect when missiles have been launched, when in fact both America and Russia have mistakenly identified first strike attacks which were never actually ordered, which caused them to come within minutes of launching their own missiles in a retaliatory strike.
Deterrence is based on the wishful thinking fanciful notion that human beings can be counted on to be rational. The mass production of nuclear weapons proves that this idea is itself irrational.
In WWII all of Hitler’s generals knew that invading a country as large as the Soviet Union was madness, but Hitler’s ego was drunk on his previous victories so he didn’t listen. There will always be someone who thinks he is clever enough to outwit logic and facts.
And let us not forget that deterrence does nothing, nothing at all, to prevent nuclear weapons accidents. In fact, keeping weapons on hair trigger alert so as to maintain deterrence makes accidents more likely.
Deterrence is a game of Russian roulette. As we cling to our nuclear weapons, we keep pulling the trigger of the deterrence gun every day and getting away with it. And so we fall victim to the wishful thinking fantasy that the chamber of the nuclear weapons gun will always come up empty.
The reality is that deterrence is a short term, short sighted strategy whose ultimate outcome will be death. So long as we possess nuclear weapons we are drifting towards the day when they slip from our control.
The idea that nuclear deterrence can keep us safe will always be true, until the day that it isn’t.
This 30 minute video tells the story of Nikita Khrushchev, the Russian leader of the fifties and early sixties who decided to install Russian nuclear missiles in Cuba, a roll of the geo-political dice which led to the Cuban Missile Crisis.