AS THE NAVY plane swooped low over the jungle, it dropped a bundle of devices into the canopy below. Some were microphones, listening for guerrilla footsteps or truck ignitions. Others were seismic detectors, attuned to minute vibrations in the ground. Strangest of all were the olfactory sensors, sniffing out ammonia in human urine. Tens of thousands of these electronic organs beamed their data to drones and on to computers. In minutes, warplanes would be on their way to carpet-bomb the algorithmically-ordained grid square. Operation Igloo White was the future of war—in 1970.
America’s effort to cut the Ho Chi Minh trail running from Laos into Vietnam was not a success. It cost around $1bn a year (about $7.3bn in today’s dollars)—$100,000 ($730,000 today) for every truck destroyed—and did not stop infiltration. But the allure of semi-automated war never faded. The idea of collecting data from sensors, processing them with algorithms fuelled by ever-more processing power and acting on the output more quickly than the enemy lies at the heart of military thinking across the world’s biggest powers. And today that is being supercharged by new developments in artificial intelligence (AI).