A new global villain has emerged at the Alpine conclave of the great and the good: the over-mighty "corporate state" beholden to nobody.

Google and Facebook have crept up on the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency - or Britain's M16 and Germany's BND - using their vast wealth to develop sophisticated technology that goes far beyond social media and is beginning to impinge on core issues of national defence.

Prof Mary Cummings from Duke University said the two digital empires have acquired drone technologies that exceed anything available to the world's most powerful intelligence agencies.

"Sorry to drop that bombshell on you all", she told a panel on the Future of War at the World Economic Forum in Davos.


These "corporate states" - as she calls them - are the shadowy forces of globalisation, operating at levels that few understand, and they have until recently escaped serious scrutiny.

Over the last three years Google has bought a string of robotics companies, including the British group Deepmind specialising in artificial intelligence.

It has been foiled in its scheme to deliver internet access to remote areas with solar drones, but other plans are on track. Facebook is focused on high-altitude drones, and is developing aircraft with the wingspan of a large passenger jet.

The two giants are working on submarine cables and building communications satellites.

Their motive is perfectly logical: they are in cut throat competition against each other for mastery of the digital future.

Prof Cummings said robotics are also entirely changing the military. The latest unmanned weapons make less mistakes than human beings acting under stress. It is now safer and more efficient to deploy robotic drones for air assaults.

The problem is that governments have no monopoly on the technology of warfare. Everybody can get their hands on robots.

"Isil can print drones with 3D printers and arm them with biological weapons, and cause far more devastation than an F35. The barrier for entry is so low that everybody can have a drone," she said.

Better Google and Facebook to be sure, but none of these global actors really answer to our parliaments.