On November 8, 1519 Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes and his exploration party first made contact with Aztec emperor Moctezuma II. After a coup d’état resulting in the death of the emperor in the Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlan, the Spaniards found themselves at odds with the formidable regional power. Despite being vastly outnumbered, the Spaniard’s steel weapons and armor proved a huge advantage over Aztec technology in the fighting that ensued. The natives’ stone weaponry could not penetrate steel armor, nor could Aztec armor defend against steel swords. Additionally, horses were a major advantage as mounted Spaniards could easily outmaneuver Aztec warriors on foot and break ranks of their infantry. In Tactical Factors in the Spanish Conquest Of the Aztecs, author Douglas Daniel writes:
“The comparatively small force of cavalry available to Cortes was a key ingredient in the Spanish force, which often achieved startling success against native forces. At Cintla in Tabasco, early in the expedition, thirteen horsemen routed a huge enemy force engaged with the infantry … At Otumba the wounded and exhausted cavalry repeatedly broke through the overwhelming numbers of Aztec troops until they retreated … ” Douglas Daniel, Tactical Factors in the Spanish Conquest Of the Aztecs
Another determining factor in the Spanish conquest was the use of gunpowder, notably cannons, in the siege of Tenochtitlan in 1521. During the eight month siege Spanish cannons leveled the city, leaving it uninhabitable until Mexico City was later constructed over the rubble.
The Spaniard’s rapid defeat of the Aztecs is a classic case of a more advanced civilization overtaking a less developed one. Their conquest underscores an important point about how innovation plays a determining role when two nations become hostile: the side with the greater tech usually wins.
Today, western nations enjoy the benefit of being in the premier position in terms of technological development. After the fall of the Soviet Union, few competitors have emerged to take on the west’s technological dominance. China is looking to challenge the west’s position in tech however, particularly in the development of artificial intelligence (AI). The race to develop more advanced AI will likely have far-reaching consequences – from geopolitical positioning to the battlefield. Technological dominance by China will lead to their increased influence in the world to the expense of decreased influence by western powers. As we can learn from the Aztec Empire’s collapse, nations that possess greater technological capabilities will likely dominate the geopolitical landscape, while those that fail to innovate will cease to control their own destinies.
The Technological Cold War and Pandora’s Box
Similar to the arms race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, China and western powers are currently involved in their own race for technological capability. Over the past several decades, China has made a concerted effort to accelerate technological innovation by increasing investments in research and development. According to the World Economic Forum:
“China’s spending on R&D grew by an average of 18% per year between 2010 and 2015 – more than four times faster than U.S. spending. And, although the U.S. still spends more on R&D, China’s rapid growth means it is likely to take the lead within the next five to 10 years.” World Economic Forum
The fruits of this investment are currently being realized. One of China’s major goals is to develop advanced AI, a field that could offer favorable advantages on the world stage. China’s plan is to become a global leader in AI by the year 2030, a goal that looks achievable given that China has published more research papers in recent years than other leading countries . Besides heavy investments in research, China benefits from another advantage due to its high population. With an internet-using population of 750 million, China has a larger pool of data to pull from than any other nation . This allows them more research opportunities and (theoretically) higher accuracy of results.
One intriguing and somewhat dystopian potential consequence of this “technological cold war” focused on AI is the development of AI weaponry: missiles, drones, guns, and vehicles that would operate sans human involvement. These weapons could replace humans altogether on a battlefield and grant a huge advantage to the side with the means and willingness to deploy them.
Kai-Fu Lee, former president of Google China, describes AI as the “third revolution in warfare”. In an article recently published by The Atlantic, Lee writes:
“Autonomous weaponry is the third revolution in warfare, following gunpowder and nuclear arms. The evolution from land mines to guided missiles was just a prelude to true AI-enabled autonomy—the full engagement of killing: searching for, deciding to engage, and obliterating another human life, completely without human involvement” Kai-Fu Lee
Lee notes that these weapons are not a speculation of the far-off future but a present danger whose sophistication and lethality will improve in the next few years. A current example is Israel’s Harpy drone which is programmed to identify targets in a specific area and hit them with explosive warheads . Over time, the ability for AI weapons like the Harpy to identify a broader range of targets will increase. Additionally, they will quickly become more intelligent, faster, and cheaper. AI weapons may eventually even be able to “learn” new capabilities like how to fight in groups and tactically overcome opponents . Like the mounted conquistadors, mechanical robots will be able to easily outmaneuver regular flesh and blood humans.
Stuart Russell, a professor at UC Berkeley who specializes in AI, notes that the only real limitations on AI weapons are the laws of physics. He says:
“The capabilities of autonomous weapons will be limited more by the laws of physics—for example, by constraints on range, speed, and payload—than by any deficiencies in the AI systems that control them. One can expect platforms deployed in the millions, the agility and lethality of which will leave humans utterly defenseless.” Stuart Russell
Of course, there are deep ethical questions that need to be considered with AI weaponry, like who would be held responsible for the deaths of anyone brave or foolish enough to fight one of these killer robots, and what criteria would be programmed into the robots to differentiate between enemy combatant and civilian. Secretary-General for the UN António Guterres has recently spoken on the issue:
“The prospect of machines with the discretion and power to take human life is morally repugnant.” António Guterres
Still, despite these concerns, one should not assume that a cautious approach to AI development will be implemented as humans have always found ways to rationalize the inventions of deadlier and more efficient weapons.
In fact, many nations may find themselves in a position where the proliferation of AI weapons must be expedited. Like nuclear weapons or gunpowder, the development of AI weapons may be a “Pandora’s box” that, once opened, can never be closed again. Civilizations wishing to stay influential on the world stage may be forced to compete for the latest technology in a bid to survive. Those that fail to keep up with the latest advancements may be doomed like the Aztecs were once the Spanish conquistadors stepped ashore. Due to the exponential nature of technological development, the power difference between those nations who develop AI weaponry and those who don’t may prove larger than that of the conquistadors and the Aztecs in the 16th century.
Innovate or Else
So will this third revolution in warfare prove to be the difference between geopolitical dominance and catastrophic collapse, just as the development of gunpowder and nuclear weapons were for certain nations? If the west fails to keep up in the “technological cold war,” will this result in increased influence of nations like China?
Using history as our guide, we can be sure that civilizations who encounter aggressors with vastly superior technology fail to last long. The nations investing heavily in AI research now and developing plans to successfully implement these technologies will have a clear advantage in the coming decades.
 Tactical Factors in the Spanish Conquest Of the Aztecs, Douglas A. Daniel, Western Washington University, Anthropological Quarterly Vol. 65, No. 4 (Oct., 1992), pp. 187-194