room with robots ready to go out on a dystopian battle field controlled by humans at a control desk

The Fourth Industrial Revolution and the Future of Warfare

We will look back on the pandemic as a punctuation point in history. Perhaps a new paragraph, a new chapter or even a new book. I’ve been touching on the implications of 4IR for a while, and 2023 has been the year that AI became “real” for a lot of people.

In 2016 I wrote this piece: which talked about the likelihood of instability between nation states in the battle for the oil markets. Energy transition has changed the calculus and so has the 4th industrial revolution. The world has, indeed, become less stable.

One of the areas perhaps not often openly discussed in the 4th industrial revolution is the nature of warfare. As we push the boundaries of technology, the way nations prepare for, initiate, and engage in conflicts is evolving. Here are some things to consider.

1. Automated and AI-Driven Warfare:

  • Drones and Robotics: Drones are no longer just eyes in the sky. With advancements in AI, they have transformed into precise offensive weapons, capable of carrying out strikes with minimal human intervention.
  • Autonomous Military Robots: Ground-based robots could potentially replace foot soldiers in certain scenarios, minimizing human casualties. Moreover, underwater drones can conduct sabotage or reconnaissance missions without risking human divers.

2. Cyber Warfare:

  • The 4IR has seen an increase in state-sponsored cyberattacks. These can target crucial infrastructure like power grids, water supplies, and communication networks. A well-timed cyberattack can cripple a nation, making traditional military engagements look outdated.
  • Information warfare will also be at the forefront, with nations battling to control narratives, spread disinformation, and sway public opinion.

3. Enhanced Soldiers:

  • The combination of biotechnology, nanotechnology, and AI could give rise to super-soldiers. Whether it’s through exoskeletons that provide unparalleled strength or through drugs and enhancements that reduce the need for sleep and boost physical and cognitive abilities, the very nature of the ‘soldier’ is being redefined.

4. Space – The New Frontier:

  • As nations look to the stars, space becomes the new domain for superiority. Satellite warfare, where nations could blind or mislead others by taking out or hacking their satellites, will be paramount for control.

5. A New Nuclear Age:

  • With the rise of AI and automation, there’s a potential risk of ‘dead-hand’ systems. These are AI-driven systems that, once activated, can autonomously decide to launch nuclear weapons based on data inputs. While designed as a last-resort deterrent, they pose significant risk given the lack of human judgment in the final decision.

6. Asymmetric Warfare and Non-state Actors:

  • With 4IR technologies becoming more accessible, non-state actors and guerrilla groups could gain access to disruptive tools. This means that smaller groups could potentially inflict significant damage, levelling the playing field against more significant, established military powers.

7. Ethical and Moral Implications:

  • As machines start making more decisions, nations will grapple with moral and ethical dilemmas. How do we program ethics into our machines? If an AI-driven drone strikes a civilian target, who is held responsible? These questions demand global attention and consensus.


The Fourth Industrial Revolution is reshaping warfare, just as it is transforming industries. While many of these changes can lead to reduced human casualties and precise warfare, they also introduce unpredictability, especially when machines are granted decision-making powers. As we stand at the cusp of this new era, it is essential for nations and international bodies to collaborate and establish norms and conventions. The future of warfare is not just about superior technology; it’s about harnessing that technology responsibly.

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Gareth Davies

Innovation Expert with 30+ years of experience living and working across the world. I apply an engineering approach to helping companies innovate and achieve commercial success.

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