22 mins read

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interviewer: Danilo Mattera, graduated in Political Science and International Relations at the University of Rome 3 external editor for the IARI he deals with defense and security

interviewed: Dr. Gabriele Rizzo, is a visionary futurist and an enthusiastic innovator. He is NATO Member at Large for Strategic Foresight and Futures Studies and former advisor to the Italian Minister of Defense. He advises Governments and Defenses on long-term strategies, foresight, game-changing technologies, and innovation convergence.

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The spread of COVID-19 is raising many questions about the outlook and the entity of the upcoming security and defense challenges. Even though this debate has reached public opinion just in these dramatic times, teams of experts try to scan the opportunities and the challenges that the future seems to hold every day. What are the methodologies used by scholars? What are the main trends of the future operational environment? We talk about these issues with Dr. Gabriele Rizzo (bio)

Any views or opinions represented in this interview are personal and belong solely to Dr. Rizzo, and do not represent those of people, institutions, or organizations that he may or may not be associated with in his professional or personal capacity.

  • Professor Rizzo, thank you for accepting our invite on behalf of Istituto Analisi Relazioni Internazionali. Before starting our journey through the future, beyond the horizon, could you explain what the main characteristics of strategic foresight are? What are the obstacles that you face most frequently in your job?

The main misconception I encounter is in framing strategic foresight as a magic wand for decision-making. It is not: foresight and futures studies are tools to anticipate the broadest range of possibilities to be in the futures. The future does not exist “per se” – it comes in many guises. There are many different versions of the future, and that’s why we talk about futures – plural – studies. Foresight is a strategic enabler for decision-making. It is not, however, about making decisions in place of decision-makers; it is distilling dilemmas for decision-makers to decide more, better.

Another common misconception I came across is on the nature of foresight: foresight is not a forecast. Every time we try to predict the future, we get it wrong – paraphrasing Peter Pan: every time we say we’re “predicting the future,” we’re (metaphorically) killing a futurist! “The future” cannot be “predicted” because “the future” does not exist (First Dator’s Law of the Future). A forecast is about projecting trends and using quantitative models to have metrics. Precisely in virtue of this, forecasts work just in the “Outlook future” – the span of time that covers anything non-recurrent that’s in your calendar. It accounts for up to three years, which is the range within which forecasts are meaningful. But if you want to venture more in the deep futures, there is no forecast and no quantitative metrics: there is no matter of fact in the futures. Foresight is intrinsically quali-quantitative. Data-driven foresight is a heresy, a contradiction in itself. The whole purpose of foresight is to anticipate the possible choices leaders might find themselves to make, not giving metrics to sustain the modern trend of “data dictatorship.”

Being a futurist is a discipline that requires constant training and discomfort – I will come back to this is a second. On training: you are not hiring a futurist to have intuitions on the possible, probable, plausible, or preferable futures. This is just the very beginning of the process. Good, sharp intuitions are the top of the pyramid, the highest and most valuable outcome of creativity when weaponized towards the futures. Still, foresight is not just imagining the future: it is creating a structure to climb to the summit of the pyramid, to make intuition accessible, extensive, and fully exploited for visioning and futuring. Foresight is having both the ideation firepower and the meta-perception of the process to field techniques and methodologies to think the unthinkable, to prepare for the unforeseen. On discomfort: anything can be right in the futures, and all our “images of the futures” are equally likely when we imagine them. It is straightforward to end up in situations where both a statement and its opposite can be true, or where it is impossible to define completely the conditions enabling a meaningful picture of a state or a scenario. This impossibility to give closure to the need of cognitive completeness, also called “cognitive closure,” is a feeling that futurists not only have to understand and live with, but even use to their advantage – while remaining firmly in that discomfort, the signal that there is no unconscious choice being made, thus having no image of the futures precluded.

There is also the challenge of being able to focus the mandate on the ‘right’ horizon – that is, the conception of the strategy, not just its execution. Executing a strategy has significant value, but the decisions do not accumulate at the further end of the time horizon. Some decisions might need to be made today, or in three years’ time, to have the desired effect in 20 years. And maybe other factors need attention, or a refocus, to prepare the ground for that decision to be taken in three years.

  • In an article published on Foreign Affairs, Richard Haas contended that the Covid-19 pandemic will accelerate history rather than reshape it. Do you agree?

Partly. I do agree with acceleration rather than reshaping. I wholeheartedly agree with the subtitle of the article, “not every crisis is a turning point.” I would argue, however, that the primacy of the U.S., albeit challenged, will last despite the current times. The technological and industrial advantage amassed in the U.S. industrial complex is so vast and exceptional that is unsurmountable by any other attempt from emerging powers to fill the gap. This does not mean the U.S. can afford to take the challenge easily, but instead they have to maintain the lead aggressively. For an interesting reference on this, I would suggest Gilli & Gilli’s “Why China has not caught up yet.” The idea of bleak futures, despair, poverty, recession, and ultimately conflict belongs, in my opinion, to a way of thinking that is linear and rooted in the present. We will be able to ask pretty much anything and everything to technology; we’re on track for abundance. Rather than scarcity, it’s post-scarcity that is a backdrop of deep futures. The future is not “today, but more.” Especially in complex environments, extrapolating linearly from current trends in the present to project an image of the future is limiting and even deceiving. Complexity requires us to think in several dimensions and exponentially.


  • Technology has played an important role during the lockdown and it has also been a noteworthy tool to prevent and control the virus spread. In your analysis published in the book The Global Race for Technological Superiority, edited by ISPI and Brookings Institution, you underlined that the world will experiment a technological growth that has no precedents in human history. What are the forces that will drive this process?

Three main forces are affecting the production and employment of military power: convergence, complexity, and exponentiality. Convergence speaks to the increasingly interconnected and correlated nature of technological progress across fields. Think of what developments in software brings to simulation, and then having fields like nanoelectronics, materials science, organic chemistry benefit of this. This will bring, in turn, more progress to, say, structural engineering, or fluidodynamics, or new metallurgy in 3D-printing. Growth in these fields will allow, for instance, for faster supercomputers, better optical fibers, more efficient communication infrastructure, new structures previously impossible to realize granting extreme compactness for highly valuable energy sources. Advances that will fuel further innovation in software, computing, engineering, in a virtuous circle, self-feeding loop that grows at a continually increasing rate at every turn – the very definition of over-exponential growth. New disciplines born in the last 15 years, like bioinformatics or quantum chemistry, are a perfect example of convergence in action. Complexity reflects the impossibility to capture the entirety of interactions in a given situation, and their profoundly interlinked nature. Since in a complex scenario we cannot reduce the difficulty of the problem by studying the parts to understand the whole, new ways of framing the problem are needed in complex environments. Exponentiality refers to the exponential – and sometimes even more than exponential – growth of technology and its effects. One of the most important is an exponential “compression” of time, as time has exponentially more value than before as a resource to achieve the results.

Technological change is on a strong exponential track, with a consistent record over the last few decades. If this reveals to be a foundational characteristic of this era, and this century in particular, we will experience a growth that is beyond comprehension. Among the many available, take this recent example from Google’s new machine learning supercomputer, that is needed to train AI networks ( four of the eight models were trained from scratch in under 30 seconds. To put that in perspective, consider that in 2015 it took more than three weeks to train one of these models on the most advanced hardware accelerator available. Google’s latest machine learning supercomputer can train the same model almost five orders of magnitude faster just five years later. We are definitely not in the realm of “common sense” intuitive linear growth. It is meaningful to expect, then, that we will not experience 100 years of progress in this 21st century – it will be more like 20,000 years.

  • How will this technological growth affect military affairs? What will the future operational environment look like? In a number of foresight documents there are two recurring terms: Hyperwar and the New Normal.

Taking the trend of exponential growth and acceleration of technology as confirmed, its consequences are mostly beyond imagination. The ones we can grasp, however, are huge. With this assumption, on the horizon 2040-2050 (during the Third Machine Age and entirely moving into the Imagination Age), we are going to see developing a “hyper” tier of conflict – hyperbolic, hypersonic, hypercontested.

Hyperbolic warfare, or hyperwar, is AI-fueled, machine-waged conflict. What makes this new form of warfare unique is the unparalleled speed enabled by automating decision making, and the concurrency of action that becomes possible by leveraging artificial intelligence and machine cognition. In military terms, hyperwar may be redefined as a type of conflict where human decision making is almost entirely absent from the observe-orient-decide-act (OODA) loop. As a consequence, the time associated with an OODA cycle will be reduced to near-instantaneous responses. The implications of these developments are many and game-changing, like infinite, distributed Command & Control capacity, concurrency of action and perfect coordination, logistical simplification, and instant mission adaptation.

Hypersonic means not just the employment of assets and kinetic effectors at speed higher than Mach 5, but also the overall posture of embracing and exploiting the compression of time. I include directed energy weapons too in this label, despite being speed-of-light – way more than hypersonic.

Hypercompetition, or the condition causing the strategic space to be hypercontested, describes conditions where competitive advantage is not sustainable, and competitors are persistently attempting to erode the opponent’s competitive advantage.

In such an intense, complex, compressed environment, the tenet future Military Instrument of Power will likely be called to adhere to could be phrased as “instant decision, perfect action.” In the Imagination Age horizon (2040-2050), machines would team alongside and together with humans, potentially calling for an evolution in the nature of warfare. This already raises a flag on the horizon for a new generation of decision-making, where humans and machines are inextricably linked, bringing out the best of both worlds to the Forces. We will likely see real machine to machine warfare, with the role of humans being fundamentally different from what it is today.

  • In your paper published by ISPI and Brookings Institutions, you referred to a mythological creature in order to describe one of the possible relationships between humans and machines. Could you tell us more about this issue?

The exponential, and in some fields over-exponential, growth of structured and unstructured data, from human and non-human sources, marks the transition from knowledge creation being an exclusively human endeavor to its future dimension: becoming a blended, converged enterprise by Centaurs, man-machine unicums likening to the mythical Greek half-horse, half-man creature, blending biological and artificial intelligence into an inextricably linked, converged whole, which is more capable than the sum of its parts alone. 

The narrative Human vs. Machine is deeply misplaced. Intelligent machines will not replace human beings. They will fulfill some of their traditional tasks, thus opening more space for focusing on the domains where human beings have some inherent advantages. And we’re not talking about “the Terminator” here – it is enough for the convergence or the integration to be functional. We are all almost Centaurs when we’re navigating using the maps app on our smartphone.

In our era – the Information or Cognitive Age – data are the dispersed, ever-present dust being the invisible gold of today’s markets and tomorrow’s Theatres. Data do not exist just in one side of the real-virtual nexus – they are generated from events happening in cyberspace and physical space, and their effects have ripples in all Domains of operations. As such, neither an only-physical nor a completely cyber being can capture and exploit the full potential of data. With Centaurs, the humans half brings the brain and the heart, while the machine half provides its strength, speed, and power, making sense of that data. This will happen by learning and reasoning from their interactions with us instead of being explicitly programmed – making it scalable with the volume, complexity, and unpredictability of information and systems in the modern world. Both parts are inseparable and empower reciprocally.

The human-grade speed of decision-making might not be sufficient to keep up with the dynamics of the Theatre of tomorrow. This means that locking in just the human element in the decision-action cycle might weigh as a disadvantage for future forces. Nevertheless, it will be paramount to have a human touch as a unique differentiator to raw machine power.

In our latest work with the Futures Lab of HEC Lausanne, we delve more in-depth in this concept, looking with a unique lens to the human element, and we expanded this concept to encompass not just one, but several ways in which AI could integrate with the human counterpart. The book is titled “HR Futures 2030: A design for future-ready human resources” and will be out this fall.

  • Finally, I kindly ask you to suggest papers, books, or websites useful to deepen our knowledge about the strategic foresight and the future warfare.

There are several documents available on the public domain for our interested readers:

  • NATO Allied Command Transformation has a line of studies called “Futures Works.” There are two primary documents available on the internet coming out of this effort: the Strategic Foresight Analysis (SFA), describing the possible environment in 2035, and the Framework for Future Alliance Operations (FFAO), that covers the implications of SFA for the future Armed Forces.
  • UK Doctrine and Concepts Development Center (DCDC) prepares an extensive document on deep futures called Global Strategic Trends, publicly available.
  • NATO Allied Command Transformation had engaged with Hollywood writers to have ten short stories set in 2036 with the SFA and FFAO as the backdrop. The volume, called “Visions of Warfare 2036”, is an intriguing and fascinating read that I highly recommend.


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