The Effect of New Technologies on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament: Artificial Intelligence, Hypersonic Technology and Outer Space

October 6th, 2017


As the First Committee of the 72nd Session of the United Nations General Assembly entered its first week, the Permanent Mission of Kazakhstan to the United Nations, in collaboration with the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs, organized a side event on emerging technologies and their effects on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City. The Deputy Permanent Representative of Kazakhstan, Mr. Barlybay Sadykov, moderated the panel while Ms. Izumi Nakamitsu, the High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, delivered opening remarks. They both highlighted the dual-use nature of technological innovations, noting that civilian technologies often carry military implications. The fast pace of development and the weaponization of certain technologies, Ms. Nakamitsu stressed, requires the reinforcement of existing disarmament structures and the creation of new ones for preserving international peace and stability. Each of the panellists below spoke at the side event in their personal capacities.

Panellist Dr. Joan Johnson-Freese, the Chair of National Security Affairs at the US Naval War College, delivered a presentation on the challenges facing the weaponization of outer space and relevant arms control measures. She reviewed the military and civilian applications of satellites, emphasizing that outer space technology is often dual-use, and mentioned the inherent difficulties of determining if certain weapons are for offensive or defensive purposes.  Dr. Johnson-Freese also touched upon various confidence-building measures and legal mechanisms to ensure the peaceful use of outer space, such as establishing best practices and a code of conduct or concluding more comprehensive multilateral treaties.

Dr. James Acton, Senior Fellow and Co-director of the Nuclear Policy Programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, followed with a presentation on hypersonic weapons and their destabilizing effects. He outlined the different classes of missiles, focusing on boost-glide missiles, yet acknowledged that disagreement still exists over their definitions. Dr. Acton observed that an arms race in hypersonic weaponry may have already begun, making mutual restraint more remote. He noted that the rapid advancement of certain programmes as well as today’s unfavourable security context may hamper political progress on hypersonic arms control. Dr. Acton pointed to the technical feasibility of incorporating such systems into the existing arms control regime.

The final panellist, Dr. Paul Scharre, Senior Fellow and Director of the Technology and National Security at the Center for a New American Security, discussed the military implications of artificial intelligence (AI). After tracing the arc of AI growth in the civilian sphere, Dr. Scharre spoke about how these new technologies affect the nuclear landscape by contributing to early-warning systems as well as command and control structures. Although developments in this field can enhance crisis stability, he noted they can also shorten decision-making time and alter the offense-defense balance.

The side event was part of the Nuclear Discussion Forum (NDF). Created by the Permanent Mission of Kazakhstan in 2011, the NDF has proven to be a useful addition to the global debate on nuclear non-proliferation, disarmament and security. It serves a unique function as a venue  for  informal  diplomacy  and honest exchanges of ideas on how the international community can work towards a world free of nuclear weapons in an informal and constructive setting.


Text and photos by Paul Warnke