Riho Terras: “Fighting lies, whether it is a technological lie or just a simple lie, is important in any society”

Riho Terras is a retired General and former Commander of the Estonian Defence Forces from 2011 to 2018. In January 2019, Terras joined the Supervisory Board of the Estonian defense industry company Milrem Robotics, one of the world's leading unmanned warfare systems developers, heading its Defence Division. Additionally, he is serving as a member of the European Parliament since 1 February 2020.
From this interview with Terras, you will find many interesting new things you might've not heard about before. For example, do you know what solution received the 1991 Queens Award for Technological Advancement Innovation, surprisingly beating the World Wide Web?

This interview was conducted by Rene Rumberg, a member of the sTARTUp Day Marketing & PR team.

The rapid development of technology has affected absolutely every area of ​​life, from how we order food and measure our health. However, what impact do you think technological developments have had on policy and policy-making?


Technological developments have always influenced policy. Politics is not a thing in itself, but society as a process is directed through politics. As technology evolves, so does politics. Politics uses technology as a tool – whatever tool politics is given, it will also use it.

During Martin Luther's time, it was the invention and usage of printing, and centuries later, it was the arrival of television. Today, this is the mass media and all new solutions, but it does not change the possible essence, any such development is the nature of politics, but it does not change politics. Policies remain needed to achieve this goal.
Politicians are not required unless society has agreed that a state is necessary. If a country is not required, then politicians are also not required.
Politicians emerge if there's a feeling that common societal benefits can be effectively achieved together rather than individually, and someone is needed to organize it. The information that politicians or the state share, or whatever means of communications the state and its citizens use, can be very different – from the wedge letter and telephone and end with Facebook, but that doesn't change how things are running.

At the same time, society as a whole is changing significantly with every technological development. Just as society has changed with the arrival of the steam engine, car engine, space conquest/flight. Now society is being transformed and changed by ones and zeros, and it will be changed even more when quantum computing arrives. Then we will have things that we cannot even imagine at the moment. Politics is simply a tool, and it uses all the channels that it has.

Has the development of technology, including the internet, contributed to the strengthening and consolidating of the power of autocratic states and regimes? Let's take the hybrid war in Belarus against Lithuania as an example, where, among many other things, social media channels are effectively used for sowing fear in Lithuanian society. What can we do about it?

The invention of the printing press created leaflets, and the use of leaflets in politics was just as dangerous as the use of Facebook today. Autocratic systems exist in the same way as democratic systems, but democracy makes it more challenging to use these tools because they do not want to control information channels. Therefore, there are many more choices.

That's why it's hard to spread American propaganda in Belarus. It will be shut down for good, but in Lithuania, it's easy to spread Belarusian propaganda because the principle of democracy is that everyone has the right to say something. In my opinion, the nature of politics has not changed since Ancient Greece and Rome times, where the paradigm of our current politics was established. What has changed is simply the tools being used to implement it.

What should be society's response to big technology companies, whose sites are being used to spread an insane amount of misinformation, from simple news flashes to deep fake videos? At the moment, it seems that no one wants to take responsibility for this issue, and there are fewer actions than promises.

Fighting lies, whether it is a technological lie or just a simple lie, is important in any society. The inquisition's complaints against other people were just as horrible as the Facebook posts. You have to fight lies through explanations. In today's society, the whole system is based on the state and its citizens, and the truth has shifted because large global media groups are more powerful than states. It has come as a surprise to our social organization, so society doesn't know what to do about it. As long as these large conglomerates are allowed to exist, they will use all the possible means to stay in power.

The question is whether we can and want to limit their power. It isn't on today's agenda, and they're still able to do what they want to do. If today we're talking about the United States and China, we could soon be talking about The State of Amazon and Google. Such issues should be addressed by international institutions such as the United Nations and The European Union.

Military conflicts are not all about destruction and causing harm to humanity. Many of today's technological tools have military origins. For example, the birth of the internet, which began during the Cold War as an ARPANET WAN experiment. But what new solutions based on military innovation could we see in mass use in 20-30 years?

It is correct that investment into military development, which culminated in the 20th century, brought many new technologies later introduced in civilian use. It was a measurement model at the time. As private enterprise was unable to finance such things, public funding ensured the development of new technologies. Let's take the arms race in space as an example, which probably has had a significant impact on science and was fueled by the Cold War conflict.

Coming back to politics, war is the continuation of politics by other means, as Carl von Clausewitz said. However, the model of defense technology development that worked in the 20th century hasn't been able to survive the 21st century. Large international groups have overtaken technological developments, and today the defense industry is already taking over civilian technologies that are evolving uncontrollably in different directions. Let's take the usage of drones as an example, which did not grow out of the military technology development, but because of the model aviation and carbo robots, which were able to fly. Plus, all the IT technologies have been taken to the highest level by civilians. I have one excellent example. What do you think was the solution that received the 1991 Queens Award for Technological Advancement?

Surprise me…

It was a small round plastic ball inside a Guinness beer can pressed full of carbon dioxide, and when you open the can, the vacuum goes out and will release the carbon dioxide by creating a strong foam. That was the solution that won the award. And what came in second place? World Wide Web. It shows that we were not able to assess or understand how fast information technology is evolving.

What has happened in our pockets over the last ten years? National defense has been lagging far behind in this development. They still use the same model in military defense and technological development – first, we focus on development for ten years, then it's in armaments for 30 years, we do an upgrade, and after 50 years, we will start developing a new one. Today, there's a new upgrade after every six months.

At Milrem, we understand that we cannot be 100% done with one thing and then sell it for ten years. It must be possible to upgrade it, either free of charge or for a fee, after a certain period of time. The same must apply to already sold systems. But this is not understood by the buyers, nations, because they work the old way. The paradigm is changing now. Have you ever been to Munich?

Unfortunately, I haven't.

Between the two railway stations in Munich, all trains run on the same route. At one and the other end, the railroad breaks up and goes different paths to different villages. We're currently in the paradigm between the two railway stations.
The whole research and technological development are presently looking for new paradigms. I believe that the time is not far off when everything will change fundamentally.
For example, a person will disappear from the battlefield and not be in direct danger any longer. Today, all the signs are there. It is still said today that man must lead and do all these things, perhaps, but this may not be the case in the future. Of course, there are several dangers that Jaan Tallinn (co-founder of Skype) has often referred to in his writings when artificial intelligence reaches the cognitive phase, where it begins to think for itself.

What could be the Estonian state's ambition in the field of military innovation? Could Estonia have the best Cyber Army in the world by 2030? Or should we dream bigger and we will see Estonian Space Force by the end of 2050?

What should be is that Estonia, like all the other European nations, should be more open to finance and invest in new technologies, but it isn't easy because the way of thinking dates back to the previous war. Estonian Defense Forces cyber defense capabilities are world-class. We have been able to manage this entire vertical very well. It's the question of active defense, a cyber attack, and how far we can go, but in the end, wars are won by the tanks. Innovation should also be adapted in these areas.

In the past, the defense forces were the first adopters of new technological developments, but today it is often the case that they're the last. They are still experimenting with them but are still the last ones to adopt it because it has not been made and developed by them in secret, as it used to be. Even with the development of the internet, which took place in complete secrecy, there was no openness. Yet, they created the world's most democratic system, free of hierarchy, controlled by the most hierarchical system in the world. I believe that the national defense and armed forces are taking the same steps with society, but today they are one step behind, unlike 50 years ago when they were one step ahead. I don't see that changing very quickly in the near future, at least not in Estonia, and the desire for change isn't seen in Europe either.

Instead, there is a debate about how much technological freedom is allowed. And how much freedom there is for artificial intelligence. We tend to regulate things that we don't understand before we start understanding them. This is being intensively done in the European Parliament. As a member of the Committee on Artificial Intelligence, I am trying to act against regulating things before we don't know what they are.

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