Perils of Emerging Technologies for Human and National Security

Technology has been the key driver of change since the inception of human civilization and there is a tacit understanding that the prime mover of innovation and invention has been militaries and defence needs. On one end, these technological innovations helped us overcome the prevalent national and human security concerns, but on the other side, they have a boomerang effect on defence and precede new challenges. 

Technological innovation is the zeitgeist of the 21st century, as numerous emerging technologies like Artificial Intelligence (AI), 5G connectivity, Quantum Computing, Outer Space Technology, Biotechnology, and Nano-Medicine, etc. are transforming the way we perceive and deal with security threats. This tech-led transformation, whether it is in the realm of military affairs or relates to civil technologies, challenge the traditional notions of security and poses a security dilemma for nation-states and militaries, going far beyond and changing the security environment for humans as well. 

Moreover, if one analyzes the top five emerging technologies of 2020, it becomes evident that the dual-use technologies are expanding and blurring the distinction between technological innovations for military and civilian use. This changes the traditional normative framework of security and complicates the differences between war and peace, terrorism and humanitarian intervention, etc. It is manifested in history that advancement in science and technology benefits humans in numerous ways but at the same time, its coercive use jeopardizes the safety and security of nations and their citizens. To analyze the threats transpiring from present-day emergent dual-use technologies, one will have to explore the potential scope of use of emerging technologies in military affairs and the challenges it poses to the survival, livelihood, and dignity of people.

Artificial Intelligence (AI)

AI has become a buzzword now and it is due to the nascent developments of the field, as John McCarthy said that AI is “to make machines behave similar to an intelligent human being”. Even though the development of AI began in the mid-50s but the major breakthrough occurred in recent times and technology has become an integral part of all socio-economic domains due to the advancements in computing, mechatronics, communication channels, and other related fields. With the passage of time, the utility of AI is ever increasing in the fields like economics, healthcare, education, agriculture, transportation, outer space exploration, etc. However, there are risks associated with the research and development, design, and implementation of AI, which could undermine the benefits and jeopardize national and human security. 

Considering the advancements of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and its sub-domains like machine learning and neural networking etc. as the most cherished innovation, we will analyze the challenges emanating from technological advancements on the intersection of national and human security.

  • Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems (LAWS)

In terms of national defence and military affairs, AI threatens the traditional security landscape through assisting the developments of Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems (LAWS), increasing the speed and scale of military actions, either more informed or biased decision making, its use in payload delivery, cyber operations, etc. We have already witnessed the incorporation of AI in autonomous vehicles and drones, which not only act as a force-multiplier but also act as an effective instrument of intelligence gathering, surveillance, and reconnaissance. However, this utility of AI has been seen in technologically advanced nations like the US, UK, Russia, China, and Israel which imperils the national security of technologically inferior nations, especially the developing economies that are not in a position to allocate a huge sum of finances for AI research and development. In addition, the embryonic phase of the technology and its deployment in military and intelligence affairs also exacerbates the risk of hacking and manipulating the technology, which can result in additional challenges for the employer of technology. 

AI may alter the immutable nature of war” – Frank Hoffman.

  • Commercial Application of AI prior to Military

Another challenge emanating from the development of AI is its commercial use and development prior to the military one. In the past, the governments first developed the technologies like nuclear, Global Positioning System (GPS), etc., and then allowed the commercial sector to use them. However, the trend is opposite now and it leads to two significant challenges, where the first one is that funding is redirected to the commercial actors now (relatively smaller number of companies), while secondly, the challenges related to technology, process, personnel, and culture continue to impede the adoption of AI for military purposes. It also augments the threat of non-state actors becoming more powerful with the use of AI to achieve their political objectives. 

  • AI and Human Security 

Similarly, AI can play a tremendous role in achieving economic superiority through its application in the new industrial revolution and labor automation but it also poses challenges like loss of job and AI bias leading to socio-economic insecurity. Adding to the national insecurity, in the economic sphere, AI application in industries may lead to a “resource curse” and as Former U.S. Treasury Secretary Larry Summers predicted, “advances in AI will lead to a dramatic decline in demand for labor and a third of men between the ages of 25 and 54 not working by the end of this half-century.”

Similarly, AI has the potential to address human security-related challenges like “disaster relief, conflict prevention, delivering human rights, protection, and safety, etc.” through its real-time and cost-effective character. As we know that AI is in its nascent phase of development and deployment and the results of using AI in various domains of human security are still open to discussion. Such as, AI could help in overcoming economic insecurity and act as an instrument of eradicating poverty and lead to socio-economic equality across the board, but at the same time, job automation poses a challenge of job losses for workers across the world. The same is the case with food security, as the role of AI in agriculture is of catalyst and it is helping us to build new agriculture and nutrition models. Using AI, nations can achieve food security and provide access to food to all citizens but at the same time, it is pushing us far from organic produce to genetically modified seeds and food, which in turn have impacts on the health and livelihood of humans. In the sphere of healthcare, AI has been hailed as a revolutionary technology due to its far-fetching utility in the field, such as advancement in medicine manufacturing and virtual testing, automated healthcare units for patients, improving the experience of healthcare practitioners, etc. but at the same time, numerous ethical and legal challenges can arise with AI-driven healthcare. Ethical challenges include informed consent of patients to use their data, safety and transparency, algorithmic fairness and biases, and data privacy.

Along with the promising utilities of AI in different domains of national and human security, the nascent technology is said to be a major leap in the sphere of physical security through AI-enhanced Video Analytics systems, using machine learning for detecting suspicious activities and behaviors, deep-learning driven security and surveillance cameras, and AI-driven predictive intelligence gathering. The application of AI could result in mitigating the risks of tragic incidents such as decreasing traffic accidents, avoiding war crimes and criminal attacks, etc. With the help of AI-based technologies, civil society and communities can be protected and the political security situation could be ameliorated. However, at the same time, researches indicate that AI can enhance digital repression and undermine rule of law in democratic nations through increased government surveillance and censorship capabilities. There are examples where governments can track and keep a check on citizens through their smartphones and social media profiles. On one end, it can undermine the freedom of speech through censoring the content on social media platforms and websites, while on the other hand, AI can help repressive governments manipulate available information and spread disinformation or direct the messages to a specific group of people. ‘Deep-Fake’ video making is a common example in this scenario where one can manipulate the views of viewers through making a video of someone who actually did not say or did that thing. These aforementioned threats to the community and political security show that with the use of AI in government systems, the freedom to enjoy political and civil rights is at stake and coercive use of technology can lead to political oppression rather than empowering people politically.

  • AI and Environmental Security

As the World Economic Forum (WEF) suggests, “the challenge is moving beyond the human-friendly AI to Earth-Friendly AI to address climate change, deliver food and water security, build sustainable cities, and protect biodiversity and human wellbeing.” 

PWC reports suggest that with AI-guided autonomous vehicles, we can cut greenhouse gas emissions to substantial levels.  AI can assist in improving energy storage, management, and smart consumption. Similarly, AI can further environmental security and help us mitigate and adapt through advanced weather forecasting and predict extreme weather events. AI can also assist in seeking out vulnerabilities and enhance disaster preparation, through providing optimal response strategy and early warnings. Other areas where AI can be integral for environmental security are leading towards sustainable water consumption, tackling illegal deforestation, fishing, and poaching, improving air quality, mitigating natural disasters, etc.

Here we attempted to map the contours of economic, social, political, and ecological risks and opportunities associate with the application of AI in different domains. With this brief analysis, it is palpable that the increased use of AI will further alter the security landscape and may pose existential threats, yet this is high time to adopt a holistic approach to address the security challenges emanating from AI.


To comprehend the detrimental impacts of advancement in the field of biotechnology on national and human security, there is no better example than an ongoing pandemic. COVID-19 has led to a renewed understanding of biotechnology by national security strategists and rekindled the threats of biowarfare. 

In order to understand the implication of biotech advancements we have to look at the definition provided by the United Nations, which defines it as “any technological application that uses biological systems, living organisms, or derivatives thereof, to make or modify products or processes for specific use.” 

  • Biotechnology and National Security

In the 21st century, there have been significant breakthroughs in the field of biotechnology, such as genome editing, synthetic biology, CRISPR technology, etc. The ongoing research and development in the field imply that there will be an abundance of biotech products in the coming times, strengthening the bio-economy and overcoming several life-threatening diseases but at the same time, it poses serious risks to national security. The significance of the field, as far as bio-economy is concerned, is growing with the passage of time and a research study of Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) implies, “the global bio-economy in 2014 accounted for a significant portion of world trade and offered societal benefits in the areas of energy, food production, healthcare, and other sectors vital to sustainable development.” Technologically advanced nations, including developing ones like India and China, are investing heavily in this nascent domain, as India’s bio-economy was valued at $4.3billion in 2012 and China allocated $11.8billion for biotech innovation in 2015. Most of these investments are in the field of synthetic biology and genome editing, which poses risks of unpredictable outcomes, such as the outbreak of new diseases, food and water insecurity, and biowarfare, etc. 

The first knock-off effect is the low entry barrier, similar to AI, where more and more actors, especially private entities, are becoming involved in the field. The commercial availability of synthetic biology products augments the risk of creating new pathogens, recreating the known pathogenic viruses, and using them as biological weapons by non-state actors. Similarly, the persisting geopolitical rivalries between states have also heightened the potential use of biotechnology as a weapon. Similarly, the publication of techniques and researches in the field could be exploited by malevolent actors or terrorists.

Secondly, apart from few countries, the majority are not considering synthetic biology – a sub-domain of biotechnology – as an area of concern for national security, however, they should consider the resounding economic and human costs of COVID-19. Moreover, there is a lack of planning, funding, and monitoring of related programs by all nations, which should not be the case because of the threats posed by the nascent domain.

Considering the health and safety risks associated with biotechnology, an accident in a lab working on contagious viruses or pathogens poses danger to not only a nation but to the whole world. As we have heard the rumors of the spread of COVID-19 from a Chinese Lab, which actually was not the case in reality, but such scenarios can happen given the risks associated with the field.

  • Biotechnology and Human Security

The ecological risk emanating from the gene alteration is its unpredictable results, which may lead to new diseases of humans, plants, and animals. Although biotechnology is used to prevent diseases, such as using CRISPR technology to alter genes of malaria mosquito there are unintended consequences such as the threat to biodiversity, the spread of modified species to areas where they are not invasive. 

Considering the societal risks associated with the technology, especially the one related to the rule of law and human rights, there is a growing concern about the safety and privacy of data, such as fingerprints, DNA samples, etc. by law enforcement agencies. Few cases have surfaced where such data was sold through the internet. Similarly, biological attacks against the food and water resources could push a nation, or the whole world, towards food shortage and huge economic losses. Research showed that gene alteration could lead to the creation of new organisms, which are harmful in nature. 

Although the resources required to develop such technologies are huge, still the technological barrier and accessibility of biological agents have lowered over the period. The dual-use of such technologies, risks of bio-crimes, bio-warfare or bio-terrorism, an unpredictable result of genome editing, and possible disturbance of biodiversity and overall ecosystem poses serious threats to human, national and international security.

To overcome the threats emanating from biotechnology, at the national level, we have to spread public awareness about related risks and challenges; establish national regulatory agencies and equip them with the monitoring tools and authorities; converge the competing interests of industry, scholars, and needs of the society. Similarly, at an international level, there is a need to strengthen cooperation and existing governance and response systems, regularly revisiting them to update them, develop an international set of regulations and standards, and adopt a harmonized and global approach towards biotech policy.

Space Technology 

Although, the developments of space technology date back to the cold war era, the present-day extensive and expansive commercial and military use of space technology renders it a critical area for national security and military affairs.

Now with the low costs of access to space and with increasing reliance of militaries and end-users of technology, there are numerous new state and non-state actors entering this nascent domain increasing the space activity and reliance of end-users. At one end, these developments are facilitating us in myriad ways but on the other hand, the counter-space capabilities are threatening these stakeholders and exacerbating the likelihood of conflict among nation-states in this domain. 

As we know that like other technologies, space technology is also a dual-use technology. On one hand, it helps us in social improvements like communications, remote sensing, weather forecasting, natural resource management, etc. but on the other side, the technology is used for building the Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM) and killer satellites or anti-satellites (ASATs). The threat of counter-space technology has become more tangible due to the low barrier to entry in this nascent domain and with lowered costs of technology. However, it requires huge funding which is why only technologically advanced and financially sound nations or commercial giants are leading in this domain.

  • Space Race and Security Dilemma for Nation-States

There have been several security dilemmas emerging from this promising yet dangerous technology. The first one is the military use of space or weaponization of space by nation-states, which poses a threat to the technologically inferior nations. With the proliferation of such technologies, it is probable that the geopolitical tensions will rise and nation-states will use it in the time of war against each other and although there is a tacit agreement of use-of-space for peaceful purposes but there is a probability that proliferation of space weapons will result in a much bigger threat than nuclear weapons.

Similarly, the counter-space technologies are spurring an arms race and resulting in increasing space debris. It is pertinent to mention the event that took place in 2019 when India conducted an Anti-Satellite Missile test and successfully hit one of their own satellite. This resulted in destroying the satellite into hundreds of pieces and by the end of the year, there were 18 large trackable pieces posing threats of collision. The challenge emanating from this technology is the resulting hazardous debris that could result in collusion with other artificial and natural satellites and increasing the pollution in space.

  • Insecurities Emanating from Counter-Space Technology

Thus, the development of counter-space technologies exacerbates the threats to national as well as human security and it is the need of the hour to engage the involved actors in dialogue and establish space security frameworks at the international level. Although there are, certain initiatives going on in the latter domain, such as UN Disarmament Commission Working Group II, which is looking at ways to implement transparency and confidence-building measures (TCBMs). However, there is a need of overcoming the technology-related divides between nations and provide opportunities for equitable access to technologically inferior nations. There is a need to realize the potential of the space economy and undercut the notions of space as a source of strategic competition, through this realization we will be able to hold normative and cooperative discussions on the peaceful use of space, especially the sustainable use of earth’s orbit. 

These emerging technologies possess great potential to further inclusive development, facilitate the realization of human rights, and overcome challenges to national as well as human security. However, it will need the national and international actors to work together and reconcile their interests, especially the one on the intersection of emerging technologies and national security.

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About Amna Malik 61 Articles
Author is the President, Center of Pakistan and International Relations (COPAIR) and Editor-in-Chief of ‘Mélange int’l Magazine’ and ‘ The Asian Telegraph’.