Playing catch-up in info warfare

IT’S 0335 hours on February 26, 2019, when most are asleep. A one-line tweet announces: “At 0330 hours, IAF fighters have struck terrorist facilities at Balakot, Pakistan. Details follow.” In the event, this announcement did not happen till an official briefing at 4 pm, while Pakistan’s ISPR (Inter-Services Public Relations) tweeted at 0512 hours,

Playing catch-up in info warfare

Balakot: The airstrikes underlined the role of perception management in warfare.

Air Vice Marshal Manmohan Bahadur (retd)

Air Vice Marshal 
Manmohan Bahadur (retd)
Addl Director General, Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi

IT’S 0335 hours on February 26, 2019, when most are asleep. A one-line tweet announces: “At 0330 hours, IAF fighters have struck terrorist facilities at Balakot, Pakistan. Details follow.”  In the event, this announcement did not happen till an official briefing at 4 pm, while Pakistan’s ISPR (Inter-Services Public Relations) tweeted at 0512 hours, “Indian Air Force violated Line of Control. Pakistan Air Force immediately scrambled. Indian aircrafts gone back. Details to follow (sic).” Thereafter, India was playing catch-up in info warfare, with Pakistan laying out the story of only trees having been hit and India trying to prove that terrorist barracks had indeed been struck. Back in 1999, when the IAF shot down an intruding Pak Navy Atlantique maritime recce aircraft, it was BBC that led the TV reporting. We still have much to learn. Meanwhile, info warfare, the science and art of tailoring human perceptions, has moved a notch up further; perception management of machines through artificial intelligence (AI) and machine intelligence (MI) is the next big thing in information warfare.

AI is revolutionising life; Alexa is now a family member. Systems with AI influence human thought through bot-generated ‘likes’ and ‘shares’, creating enlarged interest in a particular communication. However, the fast developments in machine learning have some analysts referring to AI as, “…so last year.” Scientists at MIT claimed in February 2017 that they knew how to add human intuition to machine algorithms; in fact, MI has overtaken AI, is more cognitive and now mimics humans too. This portends a complete re-appraisal of information warfare operations since intelligent machines would be an integral part of human decision- making and acting independently in some areas. Hence, earlier, while perception management of humans was the focus of research, a similar challenge with respect to ‘intelligent machines’ would have to be met! Would the same aspects, as for humans, come into play? Would there be ‘leaders’ among machines or ‘groups of machines’ that would require to be influenced? And ‘masses’ of humans that were targets in yesteryear be replaced by a network of machines whose ‘thinking’ would need to be influenced, or shielded from being influenced? 

These issues would be a reality in the coming decades. But a counter-point can be made that, maybe, machine intelligence could be made impervious to influence through the use of protective software programming. But this raises a counter counter-point that if machines have to improve their ‘learning’ and come closer to human learning capabilities (which is the aim of scientists), they need to be allowed to learn freely and continuously in their environment, just as humans do — which would then make them targets of ‘learning management’. This learning management would happen through humans for sure, but could also be solely driven by other machines, including adversarial ones, a la perception management campaigns targeting the human mind. Therefore, theoretically, machine intelligence could reach levels of an order higher than what a human (its owner) envisaged! Frightening thought, but true all the same, and a phenomenon that could soon be upon mankind.

So, if software in machines could be subject to ‘learning management’ through ‘machine learning’and machine experiences, is it possible to alter the way a human learns and responds by bringing in changes in the brain (software), which is effectively his/ her biological computer?

An April 2017 article in Time magazine talks of ongoing US Navy research in managing and manipulating precognition to analyse ‘sixth sense’ or ‘premonition’. In a series of documented occurrences, where the ‘sixth sense’ of some soldiers in combat saved lives many times over, the article quotes a researcher at the Warfighter Performance Department for Human and Bioengineered Systems, “If we can characterise this intuitive decision-making process and model it, then the hope is to accelerate the acquisition of these skills.....[Are] there ways to improve premonition through training?” This extrasensory perception has been named ‘sensemaking’, where soldiers are taught to ‘sense’ the future. This is an offshoot of a programme to help patients of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder by using biofeedback with virtual reality technology to channel thoughts so as to produce changes in the way one’s brain processes information. Could this be developed further to devise means to channel adversarial thought process to one’s advantage? But since technology targeted at an adversary could well be used on one’s own populace, could this lead to a situation of robotisation of human thought through programmes driven by the State against its own people? Another scary thought, but not an improbable outcome!

To counter an inimical information warfare campaign, medical research comes in handy again. In an article on renowned website warontherocks .com, a computer analyst of the US Department of Defence quotes a book Snow Crash, in which malicious viral information is spread to infect computers and human brains through computer networks, exchange of body fluids, exposure of eyes to a code and the like. This is science fiction at present but conveys an important point; the aim in information warfare in future would be to infect the software in computers and ‘software’ in human brains with viral information which then propagates to infect other computers/human brains. 

Info warfare is changing very fast and entering fields never thought of before. India has a lot of ground to cover; we better accept the critical role of perception management in warfare, else the 0335 hours Balakot tweet would be missing again, the next time round.

(Views are personal)

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