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Why You Should Care about Pentagon Funding of Obama’s BRAIN Initiative

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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In two recent posts (here and here), I complained that the big new BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative, to which Barack Obama has committed $110 million next year and possibly billions over the next decade, may be premature.

I stupidly neglected to mention an important reason to look askance at the initiative: its biggest funder is the Pentagon, more specifically the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. According to the White House, Darpa is putting up $50 million, more than the National Institutes of Health ($40 million) and National Science Foundation ($20 million).

There’s nothing new about the militarization of brain science. Ten years ago, when I was writing an article on how information is encoded in the brain, Darpa was already a major funder of research on neural coding and neural prosthetics. Darpa program manager Alan Rudolph told me back then that the agency was interested in a wide range of potential applications, including “performance enhancement” of soldiers via either implanted or external electrodes linked to electronic devices.

One specific possibility, Rudolph told me, was a brain-machine interface that would allow soldiers to control a jet or other weapon system through thought alone, as in the 1982 Clint Eastwood film Firefox. In the film, the thought-control device utilizes external electrodes, but Rudolph said that electrodes could also be implanted in the brain. “Implanting electrodes into healthy people is not something we’re going to do any time soon,” Rudolph explained, “but 20 years ago no one would have thought we’d put a laser in the eye either. So this is an agency that leaves the door open on what’s possible.” Yes, Rudolph was talking about that familiar fantasy of science fiction, bionic soldiers.

So what’s changed over the past decade? Several things come to mind: First, major media have become less concerned about the militarization of brain science. A decade ago, conservative New York Times pundit William Safire worried that science might allow powerful institutions to “hack into the wetware between our ears.” Today, few prominent journalists question Darpa’s role in the BRAIN Initative. The best critique I’ve read is by physician/blogger Peter Freed, who asserts that Pentagon funding of the BRAIN Initiative fulfills President Dwight Eisenhower’s 1961 warning about the growing power of the “military-industrial complex.”

Second, as I have pointed out previously, neuroscientists are pursuing military funding much more eagerly and openly, as evidenced both by the BRAIN Initiative and by this 2009 publication of the National Research Council, Opportunities in Neuroscience for Future Army Applications. Overseen by leading neuroscientists, including Floyd Bloom and Michael Gazzaniga, the report advises researchers how to tap into military funding. The report advocates “collaborating with pharmaceutical companies to employ neuropharmaceuticals for general sustainment or enhancement of soldier performance, and improving cognitive and behavioral performance using interdisciplinary approaches and technological investments.”

The third change over the last decade is that the Pentagon has become much cagier about its motives in supporting brain research. Darpa now claims that its primary interest in brain science is treatment of injured soldiers. As the White House put it, Darpa hopes that brain science will “dramatically improve the way we diagnose and treat warfighters suffering from post-traumatic stress, brain injury and memory loss.”

For a more candid look at the Pentagon’s long-standing interest in neuroscience, see Mind Wars by respected bioethicist Jonathan Moreno of the University of Pennsylvania. Originally published in 2006, the book was re-released last year with updated information. As I pointed out last fall, Moreno documents the Pentagon’s interest in neurotechnologies that can enhance soldiers’ capabilities as well as disabling and monitoring the minds of enemies.

Barack Obama has asked his Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues to explore the “ethical, legal, and societal implications raised by [the BRAIN] initiative and other recent advances in neuroscience.” Let’s not leave it up to government officials and appointees—and neuroscientists–to weigh the pros and cons of neuroweapons. As William Safire, writing not just about neurotechnologies but biotechnology in general, warned more than a decade ago, we need “to get this far-reaching, soul-searching debate out of the ivory tower, onto the floor, onto the tube and into print until it penetrates every sentient being’s consciousness.”

Image: Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

About the Author: Every week, hockey-playing science writer John Horgan takes a puckish, provocative look at breaking science. A teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology, Horgan is the author of four books, including The End of Science (Addison Wesley, 1996) and The End of War (McSweeney's, 2012). Follow on Twitter @Horganism.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. JPGumby 11:41 am 05/22/2013

    Wow, I guess self defense is just plain immoral and against the scientific ethos.

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  2. 2. rshoff 12:18 pm 05/22/2013

    It’s alarming to hear Pentagon (highly political military arm of our government) and Brain Initiative (pursuit of science) used in the same sentence much less financially linked. Why? Because of misuse. We perceive science to have pure intentions whereas we perceive the military to have malevolent intentions. Are the fears justified? Is our government different than others? Just questions.

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  3. 3. RDH 1:37 pm 05/22/2013

    Obama wants to go further than the FBI and IRS have ever gone when it comes to “enemies”.

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  4. 4. RSchmidt 1:57 pm 05/22/2013

    @JPGumby, you mean like how self-defense led the US into Iraq? The US is looking to drones to “sanitize” war for the american people. If they can turn war into a one sided video game then the american people won’t protest. Because the american people only care when americans die in their wars. So the next time a US president uses the terms preemptive strike and WMDs the american people won’t complain, instead they will be rushing home to watch the carnage on TV. War will become nothing more than reality TV.

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  5. 5. JPGumby 2:48 pm 05/22/2013

    I’m just saying that for this article Pentagon = evil misuse; it would appear that the research would be tainted purely by this connection. Presumably the DoD funded school lunch program is somehow tainted as well.

    I don’t agree with everything (or even much of what) the US govt has done, but I do believe in self-defense, more or less in line with “just war” doctrine. As a corollary, if you do need to defend yourself, you should do it as efficiently and effectively as possible. Just saying this is wrong because it may be used militarily doesn’t make sense. Unless you really are a true pacifist and really wouldn’t kill under any circumstances, no matter how great the evil that could be stopped, in which case at least you have my respect for your principles.

    In any case, mental control made a lot more sense when they were worrying about giving pilots an edge, instead of putting drones in the air. The military future is now robots, not cyborgs.

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  6. 6. samdiener 3:45 pm 05/23/2013

    I hadn’t heard about this militarization of cognitive sciences in Obama’s brain initiative. The piece doesn’t really scratch the surface on the many reasons why we should oppose this kind of militarization. But militarization of science destroys science’s potential to be liberating, using science instead as a tool to maximize humanity’s ability to inflict pain on each other.

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  7. 7. hiedak 10:45 am 06/18/2013

    The truth is they implant a wireless in-body antenna or nerve stimulator inside you. Dr. Lawrence Chang of Pariser Dermatology in Newport News, VA (without my knowledge and consent)did this to me. Even after it started protruding from my scar, he refused to remove it. I can barely walk now due to this. I have bruises up my spine and across my back. I have pictures. The Virginia State Police and local police use lasers to hack into your electronics (per State Trooper Jared Vance). They beam voices into your head. See Popsci.com seeing thru walls with a wireless router. Check out the audio spotlight by Holosonics. They taze people into what justnet.org calls “excited delirium”. This makes citizens act in ways you normally would not. (I am wondering if law enforcement is responsible for the elementary school murders) See Daily Press 3/21 – 3/27 and read the stories. In Virginia, the suicide rate has escalated. I believe this is why the military suicide rate is so high. Read Brian Castner’s The Long Walk. He says on page 67, “this is my new life. It’s intolerable” They are torturing our military into suicide. They have created what they call “crisis stabilization wards” (truly gitmos) where they torture you and flat line repeatedly. They electronically rape and sodomize you. They call it rape and sodomy. They know how it feels and they do it anyway. I have been tortured by these criminals for almost five years. The Community Service Boards and Emergency rooms are in on it. I consider this to be torture, and the mark of the beast. I have an appointment next week with a general surgeon who I hope will honor my constitutional right to privacy, freedom of religion, and control over my mind an body. They use this to see what your brain sees through you eyes and hear what you hear. It is “ambient intelligence and surveillance”. They use ubiquitous computing to carry out their torture. I have two cases in the fourth circuit court of appeals. You can read and see the fraud, corruption and abuse at pacer.gov. Sadly, the Federal District Judge Arenda L. Wright Allen, per her own clerk of courts, knows how excruciatingly painful it is but fails to grant as motion for cessation of torture. Go to forbes.com and search Brandon Raub. The colleges and cities are receiving millions of dollars to torture and abuse our citizens. I have an article on Terrorism and Mental Health how these weapons so cruel. In addition, I have a book: “Safeguards in the world of ambient intelligent” that explains how they read you mind. I believe this to be the weapon of the anti-Christ. These people assault and batter your mind, spirit and soul. They are committing the unpardonable sin of blasphemy. You heart and mind are filled with the Holy Spirit and this assault on the Holy Spirit is unforgivable. Virginia has a law that bans implanting microchips, but the state police are violating their own laws!

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