João Pedro de Magalhães

The One-Man Rule

As it becomes more difficult to control the spread of weapons of mass destruction, we must control the users of such weapons--even if it implies a loss of privacy.

On April 19, 1995, Timothy McVeigh detonated 1,800 kilograms of explosives in Oklahoma City, killing 168 persons (Fig. 1). With the help of two collaborators, a single man was able to cause a major catastrophe and considerable human loss. Acquiring or manufacturing explosives is, of course, much easier now than when the Chinese invented gunpowder many centuries ago. Now imagine what would happen if acquiring or manufacturing nuclear weapons were as easy.

Oklahoma City

Figure 1: The Oklahoma City bombing.

The 1995 Tokyo subway attack with sarin gas and the Al Qaeda terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, show how much destruction a small terrorist group can cause. We can assume that, in the future, terrorist groups will have the ability to use emerging technologies to cause enormous chaos and death. As science progresses and new technologies are developed, the potential for destruction increases. It seems highly probable that we will witness terrorist attacks using weapons of mass destruction in the foreseeable future. And as we look further into the future, the violence used in terrorist attacks will increase to doomsday levels.

Nanotechnology and Doomsday

Nanotechnology is not only one of this century's most promising technologies but also one of the most dangerous. We still do not know enough about nanotechnology to foresee its effect on the balance of weapons of aggression versus weapons of defense. Yet it is curious to notice how offensive weapons--particularly nuclear weapons--have gained superiority over defensive weapons in the modern world's military balance; we can expect nanotechnology to yield similar weapons of mass destruction. One such weapon is the gray cloud, a self-replicating airborne nanodevice, theorized by molecular engineer Ralph Merkle, that catalyzes carbon dioxide into graphite. If unleashed, it could result in a solid wall that would cover the earth, block the sun, and eventually destroy life on earth in as little as a few days. Nuclear weapons require exotic isotopes, but if access to nanotechnology is cheap and easy, we must anticipate that someone will unleash its destructive power. In addition, nanotechnology is only one of the many possible scientific breakthroughs that can be used to create weapons of mass destruction cheaply and easily. Others include artificial intelligences, easier ways to initiate nuclear reactions, and biological weapons like deadly, highly contagious viruses.

The number of people needed to destroy humankind has been decreasing. Eventually, we can reach the point where a single human will have the power to kill all other humans. Since among the billions of humans alive today we can find many willing to destroy humankind, human civilization would end. A civilization where anyone has the power to destroy everyone cannot stand. Even before reaching such a point, we are likely to suffer major catastrophes. If every individual has access to knowledge and tools capable of mass destruction, our future will be a future of death and destruction.

The Disappearance of Privacy

We are yet to find a way to eliminate the knowledge of existing technologies. The Luddite option--the attempt to go back in time and limit or prohibit the application of existing technologies--appears to be condemned to failure; historically, the Luddite option has never proven realistic or productive. Therefore, we have to learn how to live with weapons of increased destructiveness and accessibility. We must think about how to cope with the increasing destructive power of terrorists, psychopaths and serial killers. Instead of reacting to terrorists, we must develop ways to prevent them before they can act.

Governments control nuclear weapons by controlling the proliferation of tools and materials necessary for their manufacture. If, as might be likely in the future, we are not able to control the proliferation of nanotech-based weapons, or whatever weapons of mass destruction the future might produce, then we must control the users of such weapons. That is why privacy is destined to disappear: A world where everyone has freedom to develop the instruments to kill everyone else is a world with a short life span, and if we are to survive, we will have to restrict freedom and cut individual liberties. As we suffer from increased violence from terrorist, privacy will fade, as has already been fading in many countries--like the US--due to efforts to increase security.

Furthermore, industrialized nations will have to face threats from anarchic or poor countries--where illegal infrastructures are easier for terrorists to create and where even the governments themselves may sponsor terrorism. The international community will have to either work with poorer nations by assisting them financially or, in the case of state-sponsored terrorism, resort to violence. Either way, isolationism is destined to disappear.

At present, there are restrictions on using nuclear materials, controls over compounds that might be used to build explosives, airport security checks, etc. Monitoring telephone calls, Internet communications, and bank accounts are becoming common practices as legal mechanisms to defend the privacy of citizens lose ground to mechanisms to prevent terrorism. As the destructive potential of human beings increases, so will restrictions on privacy and even on freedom. Philosopher Nick Bostrom and other authors have argued that we will have to live in a transparent society where everyone knows everything about everyone else in realtime. It is difficult to see how we can reach such a point, but if terrorist destruction increases, it might be an inevitable step for our survival.

Perhaps one day it will be possible for a single talented individual to destroy human civilization from home, particularly if nanotechnology's promise is realized. Before doomsday arrives, novel methods for controlling the population will also have to evolve at the expense of privacy. Should one day each human mind have the potential to destroy humankind, freedom will be defeated or the human race will perish.

The Concentration of Power

Although we might go through a transparent-society phase, we will not end our social evolution that way. Something else might happen.

A transparent society where everyone knows everything about everyone else is not the ultimate solution, because the number of persons to be monitored equals the number of persons available to monitor others. One can argue that the police can implement centralized security systems to control its citizens, including, for example, the old science fiction idea of mind-monitoring devices capable of inferring a person's thoughts. But then who controls the police? In addition, there is Murphy's Law: Whatever can go wrong will. Even in a transparent society, someone--for example, a police officer--is bound to escape controls. The threat of one of the "watchers" going out of control will always exist.

Some will argue that freedom is worth sacrificing to reduce the risk of terrorism. Others will disagree and take action to safeguard their survival and freedoms. Given developments in biology and genetics over the past few decades, it is reasonable to assume that natural biological threats like viruses, bacteria, and other disease-causing agents will stop being a problem sometime in the future. (Researchers at the State University of New York at Stony Brook created polio from scratch, however, raising doubt that viral ailments may ever be eliminated with total assurance.) Once aging is conquered, the greatest threat to an individual's survival will come from other humans. Therefore, the most successful route to survival will be to control other humans, particularly those who have the potential to develop weapons of mass destruction.

There are many future possibilities for controlling other humans, including:

  • Mind-computer interfaces. Controlling other people's minds in this way is an old science fiction plot. But as technology evolves so do the possibilities. Serious work is being done by University of Reading cybernetics professor Kevin Warwick to determine the way the nervous system communicates and by University of Pennsylvania Medical Center neuroscientist Andrew Newberg to map brain patterns of religious devotion. The day when someone will be able to cybernetically insert the memes of subjugation and devotion into another person's mind might not be very far away. After all, religions and politicians have been doing it since time immemorial, though at decidedly slower paces.
  • Biological means. Controlling someone by biological means seems impossible at present. Yet it is already feasible to design a virus to infect the population and cause a disease for which the cure is known only to a few.
  • As the threat of an individual wielding power over others grows and technology increases both the potential for mass destruction and the ability for control, power is bound to become concentrated. Initially, power will be centralized in a few individuals, but eventually one person may wield this control.
  • Is it possible for a single mind to achieve total domination even if technologies exist? Of the world's 100 largest economies today, 50 are countries and 50 are mega-corporations. The net wealth of 10 billionaires is worth twice the combined national incomes of the 48 poorest countries. So we already find a huge amount of power concentrated on a few individuals. If Osama bin Laden, with his estimated $300 million, was able to spread terrorism all over the world, what could Bill Gates do if he employed his more than $50 billion and took advantage of the fact that much of the industrialized world uses his company's software?

Superhumans, Space Colonies, or Cyberdemocracy

The paradox of how civilizations can exist with weapons of mass destruction has been debated countless times. However, some possible alternative scenarios to a despotic system exist.

1. Perhaps the evolution of the human condition by way of education, cybernetics, or genetic engineering, for example, will lead to a superior human species--a posthumanity where social unrest and exclusion are absent, poverty and hunger no longer exist, and the probability of someone having psychological disturbances is low. At present, it seems unlikely that we will reach such a scenario within a reasonable amount of time, at least for all human beings. Unlike nanowarfare, which seems a realistic possibility within the next 50 years, a posthumanity of this kind seems unlikely because there will always be some countries, some people who will prefer to remain human and refuse to make the transition to posthumanity.

2. If humans colonize space they might be able to escape being ruled by an individual or individuals. But since our knowledge of physics is not advanced enough to determine if a despot can rule over great distances, this possible solution is still open to debate. It will depend on how fast humans can spread into space and how fast a despotic mind can gain control over space.

3. One creative possibility often featured in science fiction stories would be a cyberdemocracy. This is a hypothetical system where everyone's mind would be connected to everyone else's. People would lose enough individuality to prevent traitors or terrorists and to allow the system to create a single sentient entity. Since we clearly lack the technologies to endure such a change, it could be a dream forever. Yet the future is made of such dreams--and nightmares. The greatest fault in these scenarios is that the minds with the power to make such changes (probably minds belonging to politicians) might be more inclined to take over the world themselves. After all, that would be the wisest choice for someone aspiring to survival. For example, a government could foster upgrading everyone intellectually, perhaps even by force, as through a national vaccination or other like-minded campaign. If a government--a relatively small group of individuals--is allowed to change its people's minds, then they are only a small step away from controlling everyone's minds.

The most likely future of humankind will involve an initial decrease in personal freedom for an increase in security. The percentage of humans with power will decrease with time, which might lead to humankind being ruled by a single mind. Even if taking over humankind is difficult and occurs far in the future, it is an irreversible step. Therefore, if we look far into the future, we see that one mind might eventually rule humankind, or what is left of humankind at that time.

Notice: This article is an adapted version from the original published in the November-December 2002 issue of THE FUTURIST. Used with permission from the World Future Society, 7910 Woodmont Avenue, Suite 450, Bethesda, Maryland 20814. Telephone: 301/656-8274; Fax: 301/951-0394;