When you think of giant, earth-ravaging existential threats these days, what comes to mind? A global health pandemic? Global warming? Terrorism? That super volcano beneath the Yellowstone National Park that people sometimes mention as being this total disaster waiting to happen but not really? Could be all of those and more. If so, get outside, you paranoid husk of a humanoid shadow. One threat on the horizon that is inching towards reality is the risk posed by the development of artificial intelligence, and the increasing cyberisation of humanity.

Allow me introduce you to DARPA – the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency. DARPA was created in 1958 by order of President Dwight Eisenhower in the most American way possible – in response to a Soviet achievement. Namely, the launch of Sputnik 1: the first artificial earth satellite. Originally named ‘Ultimate Communist-Thumping Ass-Kicker Department of Total Freedom Testicles’ (I think), this government department is responsible for some seriously incredible achievements of its own. DARPA created the first ever weather satellite, essentially designed the precursor to modern GPS, invented the computer mouse (you’re welcome, gamers) and is currently working on a staggering 250 research projects, with a mere 220 government employees… and all with an annual budget of $US2.92 billion.

‘But Tim,’ you splutter through a mouthful of expired cornflakes, ‘what do they do with all of that cash? You know, seeing as they really could use a social security and medical system overha-

I’m glad you asked. Should you visit DARPA’s website, it provides details on their research projects. Here are some of my personal favourites:

EXACTO bullets: DARPA has already completed testing – and this is true – on its Extreme Accuracy Tasked Ordnance (EXACTO) Program. DARPA has developed bullets that actually swerve to hit moving or accelerating targets.

MAD-FIRES: The Multi-Azimuth Defence – Fast Intercept Round Engagement System is a program designed to develop a new class of missiles that combine the precision and power of ordinary missiles with the speed and ammunition capacity of regular bullets, while also being capable of engaging multiple targets and then re-engaging stuff that didn’t die the first time

HELLADS: The High Energy Liquid Laser Area Defence System is a 150kw laser designed to be 10 times smaller and lighter than lasers with a similar power – which they eventually intend to use on board aircraft.

RAM: Restoring Active Memory is the only project I’m listing that won’t kill everything you’ve ever loved, but it’s still incredibly awesome and equal parts ambitious. DARPA wants to create and test a wireless, fully implantable neural-interface medical device for human clinical use in order to overcome memory deficits by developing new neuroprosthetics to bridge gaps in the injured brain. I copied most of that from their site, and I understand almost none of it, but if I’m right, it sounds like they’re developing a way to actually restore memories lost due to brain damage.

Cortical Processor: In 2013, DARPA launched ‘request for information’ on the research and development of what is essentially creating a machine that can think like a human – in other words, a machine with a human brain. Just think – at the moment, your car doesn’t hate you for riding it all day long and then leaving it alone at night outside. But clearly, DARPA is working to change all of that…

Back to ‘cyberisation’, you may have heard that just recently, over 1,000 intelligence experts and researchers signed an open letter warning of a “military artificial intelligence arms race”. Google it. Stephen Hawking was involved, so you know it’s legit. Essentially, Hawking has warned that AI is “our biggest existential threat”. The development of autonomous AI without careful consideration of the potential effects could lead eventually to hostile AI, and the beginning of a new Terminator reboot, except this time, Arnie is way too old to be of any use.

The problem with rapidly advancing cyberisation is the huge intellectual gap between those that develop the technology and those that use it. Think about it. Right now, you’ve probably got some kind of smart device next to you – iPhone, laptop – that you use regularly. You understand how to use it; how to text, call, browse facebook, swipe right an indecent number of times.

Now imagine a military setting. Heavily equipped and technologically advanced soldiers, using deadly technology that they understand only how to operate. Remember, DARPA – which invests heavily in research into complex areas beyond the comprehension of all but the most gifted individuals – has only an employee base of 220, but their products may affect over ten million times that number. It’s a mind-boggling responsibility when you think about it, and yet there are at least 250 projects in the works.

This is not science fiction. These are real projects, with tangible outcomes. Technology is increasingly complex, society is increasingly dependent on it, and we are increasingly vulnerable to the fallout.

Words by Tim Dempsey