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Interview with Fred Charles Ikle, author of Annihiliation from Within

Fred Charles Ikle, author of Annihilation from Within: The Ulimate Threat to NationsIn Annihilation from Within, Defense expert Fred Iklé, who helped create important safeguards against accidental nuclear launches and developed an influential strategy for ending wars, offers an eloquent and impassioned book on the new challenges confronting the security of the world. Iklé predicts a revolution in national security that few strategists have grasped. While preoccupied with suicide bombers, jihadist terrorists, and rogue nations producing nuclear weapons, the true menace is left unanticipated. Here is an interview with Iklé:

Q: In your book you foresee that the accelerating advances in brain science and computers will merge to build a superhuman intelligence system, and that such a development could upend human civilization. But then you assert that the United Nations and international treaties could not stop this threat. Why?

Fred Charles Iklé: For three reasons: First, the lessons of the nuclear age teach us why. Since 1945, eleven American Presidents—from Harry Truman to George W. Bush— tried to prevent the proliferation on nuclear weapons. In fact, the United Sates, which first had a monopoly in nuclear technology, wanted to halt the use of this technology for making weapons. But it could not reach an agreement with Stalin's Soviet Union. Second, strong economic and compassionate forces are pushing toward a merger of computer science and brain science to explore and pursue a super-human intelligence system. The computer businesses compete with each other by designing ever smarter computers. And for compassionate reasons—to find a cure for Alzheimer, dementia, Parkinson, etc.—governments support and neuroscientists work hard on new ways to understand the human brain. Third, an agreement to stop these converging scientific advances could not be verified or enforced.

Q: You make the frightening and grim forecast that an aspiring dictator could obtain a couple of nuclear bombs and annihilate the government of his own country so as to seize power. Doesn't it seem likely that such an attempt of annihilation from within might be discovered and the terrorist-would-be-dictator hence would risk being condemned to death?

FCI: Yes, such a discovery is perhaps likely, provided the nation about to be attacked has a well functioning intelligence system and the technical sensors that can find nuclear bombs. Even the United States (as my book explains) has lagged far behind in the development of such sensors. Moreover, aspiring dictators who are uniquely determined, ruthless, and cunning are not easily dissuaded. Recall the several failed assassination attempts on Lenin or Hitler.

Q: Your overarching theme is what you call "mankind's cultural split." But the scientific revolution and the Industrial Revolution that led to this "split" occurred two centuries ago. Yet, human civilizations have advanced in all the developed countries, bringing economic growth, longer and better lives, and so on; and these advances have started to spread to the poor countries. So what is so bad about this split?

FCI: What is bad is that democratic governments can't stop nuclear proliferation, can't prevent medical advances in biotechnology from being misused by some country to make biological warfare agents, and that the divergence will become wider between the powers and capabilities of the political order (whether national or international), on the one hand, and the accelerating power of technology, on the other. Short of a cataclysmic upheaval there is no historic force, no political movement, no unifying religion in sight that could halt, let alone reverse this widening divergence.

Q: You describe a collection of measures—part of an Emergency Plan —that our government should implement so as to mitigate the calamity of annihilation from within, or better yet to avert it. But you write that "providing a full description of the Plan...would take me way beyond the scope of this book." As a former senior Pentagon official, shouldn't you recommend such a plan with as much detail as you can? Your book has only 130 pages of text and endnotes now, so why didn't you add another 100 pages or so to help our government to do the right thing.

FCI: I did not do that, precisely because I twice served in the US Government in senior policy positions. I learned there that new ideas face many obstacles in the bureaucracy and have to be implanted from the inside by capturing the attention and interest of midlevel officials, or better yet of senior officials who can make things happen. Once the principle of a new approach has been accepted inside the government, the bureaucracy can do an excellent job in working out all the details— provided the national leadership on top keeps the process on the right track. As I note in my book, Franklin Roosevelt could do that, but not Woodrow Wilson; Dwight Eisenhower could do that, but not... Oh well.