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Atomic Bomb Dome Panorama in Hiroshima
The Atomic Bomb Dome Panorama in Hiroshima and the surounding garden in autumn at sunset on the side of Motoyasu River in Japan, with the Peace Memorial Park
Photo from Beeboys at Adobe Stock

Stark Lessons from the 75th Anniversary of the Atomic Bomb

Nuclear weapons have not been used to destroy a city since Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Seventy-five years ago today an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Einstein’s equation E=mc2 showed that 700 milligrams of mass (m), less than a third of the weight of a US dime, could be converted to enough energy (E) to destroy a Japanese city. The atomic bomb ended WWII.

Advanced technology such as the atomic bomb not only wins wars but gives pause to otherwise aggressive adversaries. For this reason, I argue in my book, The Case for Killer Robots,that the United States must continue to develop cutting edge lethal AI for military use.

As described in John Hersey’s essay “Hiroshima” in the New Yorker (1946), the effects of the atomic bomb were horrifying for the civilian population. Human beings were burnt, infused with radiation poisoning, and even vaporized. Fatalities from atomic bombs totaled about 146,000 in Hiroshima and 80,000 in Nagasaki. (The composite photo shows mushroom clouds over Hiroshima (August 6, 1945) and Nagasaki (August 9, 1945). Public domain.)

Here’s an anecdote from the other side. My Uncle Junior was a paratrooper who was trained to parachute behind enemy lines with twenty-four pounds of demolition explosives attached to each leg during the planned equivalent of D-Day for Japan. Given the militancy of Imperial Japan, Uncle Junior’s assignment was essentially a suicide mission. Unlike the Allied invasion of France, there were no friendly nationals behind enemy lines to help with the invasion. The entire population of Japan was trained to be hostile.

The atomic bomb ended the war with Imperial Japan so Uncle Junior never had to make the jump. He returned home to West Virginia where he worked as a Greyhound bus driver, married my Aunt Justine, and raised three children. Thousands of other Allied soldiers were likewise blessed with longer lives because of the atomic bomb.

More generally, historian Philip Jenkins does not paint a pretty picture of what would have happened to others, including the Japanese, if the bomb were not dropped:

Invasion [of Japan] was impossible. The planned U.S. invasion of Kyushu (Operation Olympic) in late 1945 would have been one of the greatest catastrophes in military history, not least because the Japanese knew precisely where and when it was coming. They were exceedingly well prepared, with fleets of thousands of suicide bombers. The planned follow-up attack on Honshu in 1946 would never have happened because the U.S. military would effectively have been destroyed. Quite apart from the Japanese, the great Typhoon of October 1945 would have smashed the U.S. invasion fleet before it got close to the beaches.

Philip Jenkins, “Back to Hiroshima: Why Dropping the Bomb Saved Ten Million Lives” at Back to Hiroshima: Why Dropping the Bomb Saved Ten Million Lives (May 19, 2016)

In the event of an invasion of Japan, there was a standing order to Japanese soldiers to immediately kill thousands of American POWs. Jenkins estimates that, “together with likely Japanese fatalities, you get about ten million dead—and that’s a conservative figure. The vast majority of those additional deaths would have been East and South-East Asians, mainly Japanese and Chinese.”

The race for technical superiority in warfare continues to be a sad necessity. There will always be despots like North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad who would like to wield the power of a modern-day Hitler.

Hitler was developing an atomic bomb during WWII but the war in Europe ended before Germany succeeded. Had the Nazis developed the atomic bomb first, flags in the US today might be sporting swastikas or big red circles on white instead of the Stars and Stripes. This is the scenario depicted in the Netflix alternative history series The Man in the High Castle, where the Allies lost WWII because the Nazis won the atomic bomb race.

Technology clearly wins wars and gives adversaries pause. No one wants to enter a conflict they know they will lose. Today, adversaries of the United States are vigorously pursuing AI. Vladimir Putin, president of Russia, says, “Artificial intelligence is the future not only of Russia but of all of mankind… Whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world.” Xi Jinping, President of the People’s Republic of China, says, “AI is a vital driving force for a new round of technological revolution and industrial transformation, and accelerating AI development is a strategic issue to decide whether we can grasp opportunities.”

The wisdom of George Santayana applies when we consider the development of military applications of AI: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Further reading:

Why we can’t just ban killer robots. Should we develop them for military use? The answer isn’t pretty. It is yes. (Robert J. Marks) (February 15, 2019)

Robert J. Marks II

Director, Senior Fellow, Walter Bradley Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Besides serving as Director, Robert J. Marks Ph.D. hosts the Mind Matters podcast for the Bradley Center. He is Distinguished Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Baylor University. Marks is a Fellow of both the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) and the Optical Society of America. He was Charter President of the IEEE Neural Networks Council and served as Editor-in-Chief of the IEEE Transactions on Neural Networks. He is coauthor of the books Neural Smithing: Supervised Learning in Feedforward Artificial Neural Networks (MIT Press) and Introduction to Evolutionary Informatics (World Scientific). For more information, see Dr. Marks’s expanded bio.

Stark Lessons from the 75th Anniversary of the Atomic Bomb