“How dumb is military equipment today?” Dr James Canton, CEO of the Institute for Global Futures, asked during a telephone conversation with army-technology.com. “Things like mines and tanks only have one or two functions. We’re in a very primitive stage of warfare. We haven’t moved on much since the crossbow.”

Those at the sharp end of war in Iraq and Afghanistan may think the equipment they are using now is better than that with which they entered the conflict. But, according to Canton who leads a San Francisco-based think tank that forecasts innovations and trends, they haven’t seen anything yet.

“In future soldiers will have telecoms devices embedded in their skulls,” he said. “With nanotechnology it will be possible to shrink most computing to the size of a fingernail, allowing military personnel the ability to upload and download on demand and have communications projected directly onto the iris of their eyes. One day they’ll be able to watch cable that way.”

Ditching heavy communications equipment will, he said, only be part of the solution to the current problem soldiers have in hoiking heavy loads around the battlefield.

“Soldiers carry around 90lb-worth of equipment with them at the moment. That needs to be halved and it will be once nanotechnology facilitates the introduction of wearable products that will be much lighter, more precise and have the strength of steel.”

Being smaller, tougher and more precise are just some of the advantages that have seen the phenomenal rise in the use of robots on the battlefield over the last decade. Droids have developed a key role in reconnaissance, identification and disposal of dangerous materials and protection of troops in active theatres like Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Robots can go places that humans cannot,” Canton said. ““They can see through walls, smell, hear and bring an element of objectivity unavailable to humans. Ultimately, there are so many robots used in war now because they are expendable and humans are not.”

As technology improves, Canton expects to see more and more robots take the place of humans in the line of fire.

“Within the next 20 years there will be micro wars between robot armies,” he said. “Some will be autonomous and some will be controlled by humans but the fights themselves will be robot versus robot. The robots of the future will have the full gamut of human capabilities.”

And that’s when it starts to get scary. Like something out of I Robot, Canton predicts that within 20 years robots will have the capability to develop superior intelligence to humans.

“We are creating the next generation of species,” he said. “The next level of robotic minds will have the ability to learn and self-organise. There will be a time when human intelligence will be surpassed by artificial intelligence [AI]. I am a founding member of Singularity University, a Nasa-backed school where we train people to understand what will happen when AI becomes superior to human intelligence.

“Those days will bring positive implications. We’ll need that intelligence to cope with the challenges of an evolving world. One day there will be sonic and quantum weapons capable of manipulating space and time, which humans will not be able to deploy. The only danger, of course, is if one day they decide to turn them on us.”

By Paul French.