War and peace in outer space

With help from Derek Robertson

The future of warfare burst into the present last week with reports that Israel’s military used a missile to destroy an incoming missile launched from Yemen while it was still in outer space.

The event, which is being called the first known space battle, is raising questions about the rules of war, as well as the rules of everything else that goes on beyond the Earth’s atmosphere.

Retired Air Force General Bruce McClintock participated in a NATO-sponsored space conference in Italy last week where he pooh-poohed the specific importance of Israel’s milestone. But he does see it as a harbinger of what he calls the “New Space Era,” where new kinds of oversight are going to be needed.

McClintock, who now leads the Rand Corporation’s Space Enterprise Initiative, spoke with us from the conference about the UN’s space woes, the need for “sustainability” in the cosmos, and what the East India Trading Company can tell us about the future of the final frontier.

The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Is there buzz at your conference about this missile interception?

None whatsoever. It did not come up in any of the discussions.

I brought it up, literally in a car ride from the airport to the event with some colleagues, and, you know, this is now my characterization, not anybody else’s: This is not really a space event.

Based on what I do know, the only significance in this is that it’s one of the first operational uses of a missile in this fashion. But it’s not the first time this kind of capability has been tested.

What would make a missile interception outside of the atmosphere an event that made space watchers sit up and pay attention?

If it was high enough in space that it resulted in long-term debris or even short short-lived debris. That would be significant.

So, how close are we to having rules of war in space?

One of the most important aspects of space right now is the inability of the United Nations to make progress on responsible behavior and space. Several different UN subcommittee working groups have had worthwhile conversations, and in many cases the outputs from those groups are blocked by the Russians from advancing into more formal UN discussions.

And that’s not actually a new phenomenon. It’s been arguably a couple of decades since there’s been any real progress on space from the United Nations. At least in my opinion, the last tangible work that came out of the UN was what’s called the long-term sustainability guidelines.

As a result, a lot of the conversations about long-term sustainability and responsible space behavior have moved into multilateral fora or individual constituencies below the level of the UN.

So we’ve got a fragmented governance landscape as we enter a new space race?

I didn’t call it the new space race. It’s the same type of exploration and expanding frontiers that we’ve had in other domains, right?

I mean, there were nations back in the maritime era that started exploring and moving off their own coastlines and mapping the world.

Now it’s happening to a greater extent in space. It’s part of what I will call a New Space Era. We define that as lower barriers to entry with more participants that contribute to what is commonly referred to as the three C’s: congested, contested and competitive.

Sounds messy.

We’ve talked a lot on this call about the security aspects of space. But there are a lot of sustainability aspects of space that we should be discussing — the idea that it’s a global resource.

You mentioned space debris earlier. Is that the sort of issue you’re talking about?

There’s a lot of facets to it, but yes, avoiding space debris is one aspect of those. It goes all the way to greater transparency about what’s happening in space.

What we’ve advocated for is the idea of a future international space traffic management system.

What would that look like?

What it would look like is not clear. We have an entire report written on the subject.

But we recommend convening an international convention on this topic within the next five years to decide what an international space traffic management organization would look like. And creating it within the next 10 years, which is an incredibly ambitious timeline, given the slow pace of international space agreements that I referred to earlier.

Space seems like an area that would lend itself to global governance. But given the problems you’ve mentioned moving rules through the UN, can you actually achieve something like this?

So, we are not directly advocating for the UN to be the organization that convenes this international convention, let alone is the controlling organization for the international space traffic management organization.

Instead of this top-down, “Leviathan”-type approach to having one international governance mechanism, the bottom-up approach is happening now in space traffic management

What do you mean?

What that means is you have the United States establishing its own domestic space traffic coordination system called the Office of Space Commerce, while the EU has already established its own space situational awareness program called EU SST.

Meanwhile, the Russians have their own system, and the Chinese and others have their own ways of tracking things in orbit. And now we have, no exaggeration, dozens of commercial providers that are able to capture information on what’s in orbit.

And none of that is being consolidated in any one place. We argue that at some point in the future, there’s gonna need to be some kind of organized body that becomes what I call a tiebreaker.

A tiebreaker for what?

Eventually, there will be a collision. And there will be debates about who was responsible, because both will claim that “our data was more accurate” and “it was your responsibility to move, not ours.” It’s literally the equivalent of having two cars drive on a one lane road at night with their lights out, hoping that they don’t run into somebody

Is it possible that some private sector arrangement ends up being what governs this, as opposed to some body that’s delegated power by different governments?

It’s possible and I would say also probable, because that’s already happening.

There are commercial entities that have combined forces to say, “We cannot afford to have our satellites run into each other.”

History shows that that’s exactly what happened in other domains. The most notable case is the maritime.

So the history of oceans can tell us about the governance of space?

If you think about organizations like the East India Trading Company, they were private organizations that had a financial interest in making sure their ships survived, and that they weren’t shot at when they got too close to another nation’s coast. And other collectives formed to say, “We need to figure out a way to insure our cargo when there’s multiple companies with loads on this one ship, how are we going to do that?” So they formed collectives to decide on how safe the ship had to be.

And then they all took a common interest and had common investment in those standards, that eventually, over not just decades, but centuries, became the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Generative AIs can sound a lot like people, but a new research paper shows the vast distance between the perspective of a large language model — one of the powerful engines underneath the new AI systems — and that of any given individual “person.”

A study published in Nature by a trio of AI researchers demonstrates the limits of AI role-playing, showing how while chatbots can accurately mimic human speech, they can’t make decisions, distinctions, or remember things quite like a human. They point out how it would be futile, for instance, to try to play “20 questions” with ChatGPT given a chatbot’s inability to remember the rules of the game by sticking to one “object” in their mind that the user would try to guess.

Still, the language chatbots use can inspire us to think of them as individuals. Therefore, the researchers conclude, the vast body of art depicting “sentient” AI wreaking havoc on humanity might carry its own set of risks if the systems decide to “role-play” as such a system.

“It would be little consolation to a user deceived into sending real money to a real bank account to know that the agent that brought this about was only playing a role,” they write. “It does not take much imagination to think of far more serious scenarios involving dialogue agents built on base models with little or no fine-tuning, with unfettered Internet access, and prompted to role-play a character with an instinct for self-preservation.”

The realignment of tech politics continues apace: Democratic Federal Trade Commission Chair Lina Khan made the case for her brand of aggressive antitrust enforcement on Friday to… the stolidly conservative Federalist Society.

POLITICO’s Josh Sisco reported on the remarks for Pro subscribers, and Khan’s concern about regulatory capture in the AI industry.

“These are some of the concerns that we hear today, including in the context of AI, where a lot of startups are seeing the big tech CEOs be invited to Congress, and are worrying [that] these big tech execs are basically going to help craft regulations that are going to lock out startups and innovators,” she said.

She also touched on one of the growing concerns among regulation-friendly wonks at both ends of the political spectrum: national security. “We’ve heard about some companies censoring, or changing the contents of their products and services to please the political leaders of other countries… the entire paradigm here is a bit more scrambled when these companies have interests that may be aligned against US national security interests.”