You already have a lot to worry about. Climate change, fake news, inequality, the stability of democracy. But I feel obliged to point out yet another threat: soldiers whose capabilities are enhanced by electronic devices implanted in their brains. Call them cyborg warriors.
Science fiction has been warning about cyborg warriors for a long time, mainstream journalism not so much. But several recent articles have focused on this potential peril, including one in The Atlantic titled “The Pentagon Wants to Weaponize the Brain.” The subtitle asks, “What Could Go Wrong?”
Journalist Michael Joseph Gross reports on efforts of the Pentagon’s think tank, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, to create technologies that result in “merging minds and machines.” The most dramatic are brain chips, arrays of electrodes that, when implanted in the brain, can receive electrical signals from and send them to neural tissue.
Officially, Darpa intends brain chips to help paralyzed and otherwise disabled veterans—for example, by allowing them to control computers and robotic limbs. Darpa is also interested in upgrading healthy soldiers, according to Gross. “What the agency learns from healing makes way for enhancement,” he writes. “The mission is to make human beings something other than what we are, with powers beyond the ones we’re born with and beyond ones we can organically attain.”
In principle, brain chips could boost soldiers’ cognitive and physical functions. Soldiers could control complex weapons systems with their thoughts, communicate telepathically with other soldiers and upload large databases instantly, like Neo in The Matrix. Minds containing brain chips can also be read and controlled by others. Again, in principle.
Gross cautions that “when scientists put electrodes in the brain, those devices eventually fail—after a few months or a few years.” He quotes a neural engineer asserting that an implanted memory prosthesis, which requires understanding how the brain encodes complex information, is “far out of reach right now.”
Like Gross, Raffi Khatchadourian, writing in The New Yorker, points out the limits as well as potential of brain-machine interfaces. Khatchadourian focuses on the work of a leading brain-implant researcher, Andrew Schwartz. In 2012 one of Schwartz’s implant patients, Jan Scheuermann, who was paralyzed by a neurodegenerative disorder, fulfilled a fantasy, eating a chocolate bar with a robotic arm controlled by her thoughts. (Gross also describes Scheuermann.)
Khatchadourian notes that brain implants are unreliable, because they constantly shift in the “gelatinous matter of the cortex.” When Scheuermann finally got the robotic arm to bring a chocolate bar to her mouth, she only had time for a nibble before the arm jerked the bar away. Later, the researchers removed Scheuermann's implant because skin was pulling back from the port in her skull, putting her at risk of a “deadly brain infection.” [See Note From Reader below.]
Khatchadourian also details how research on brain chips has been militarized. Before Scheuerman’s implant was removed, another Darpa contractor, the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins, carried out experiments in which she controlled an F-35 flight simulator with her thoughts.
Thrilled by that demonstration, Darpa ordered more flight-simulation research. Schwartz was reluctant to participate in these experiments, which he saw as stunts with little medical justification. He and Darpa parted ways. Darpa is continuing to fund a program, Mind Flight, in which patients control one or more drones via brain implants.
Khatchadourian raises the possibility that brain chips can be used to control as well as empower implantees. He quotes a Scientific American article I wrote about brain-chip pioneer Jose Delgado, who demonstrated more than a half century ago that he could manipulate patients’ limbs and emotions via implants. Another researcher, Robert Heath of Tulane, claimed in 1972 that he had used a brain chip to make a gay man sexually responsive to a woman.
I’m skeptical of much of the hype about brain-machine interfaces, and especially memory prostheses, as articles in Further Reading indicate. Scientists still know little about how the brain encodes information. Attempts to use brain implants to treat depression and other psychiatric disorders has been disappointing.
Second-rate researchers have conned second-rate Pentagon program managers into believing that science-fiction applications are imminent. That’s what I suspect, and hope. But breakthroughs that make bionic solders possible could be around the corner. Cochlear implants, which restore hearing to the deaf via electrodes implanted in auditory nerves, were thought to be impossible until they weren’t.
Silicon Valley loves the idea of brain-machine interfaces. Facebook, Google and Elon Musk’s firm Neuralink are funding neurotechnology research and hiring former Darpa researchers to do it, according to Gross. Regina Dugan, a former Darpa director who has worked at Facebook and Google, has said that one goal is to allow consumers to type words into a computer simply by thinking, no hands required.
Military officials are already envisioning how neurotechnologies will transform war. That brings me to an essay in New York Review of Books by historian Christopher Clark. He reviews The Future of War: A History, by military scholar Lawrence Freedman, and Future War: Preparing for the New Global Battlefield, by former Air Force Major General Robert Latiff.
The latter “sketches a vision of a future that resembles the fictional scenarios of William Gibson’s Neuromancer,” Clark writes. In future wars a “‘metabolically dominant soldier’ who enjoys the benefits of immunity to pain, reinforced muscle strength, accelerated healing and ‘cognitive enhancement’ will enter the battlespace neurally linked not just to his human comrades but also to swarms of semiautonomous bots.”
Clark ends his review brooding over the books’ implications. “It’s hard not to be impressed by the inventiveness of the weapons experts in their underground labs, but hard, too, not to despair at the way in which such ingenuity has been uncoupled from larger ethical imperatives.” Clark also deplores the books’ assumption that “war is and will always be a human necessity, a feature of our existence as natural as birth or the movement of clouds.”
Yes, as my own surveys have shown, most people—scientists, scholars, politicians and soldiers as well as lay folk of all kinds—see war as inevitable and world peace as a pipe dream. I have tried, in vain, to counter this self-fulfilling fatalism in my book The End of War and on this blog (again, see below).
Clark ends his review by asking, Where are the “prominent politicians” calling for war’s abolition? Good question. Here’s another: Where are the prominent scientists calling for war’s abolition—or, at the very least, for a moratorium on research that might trigger a terrible new arms race? Let’s hope we come to our senses before the era of cyborg warriors begins, because then it might be too late.
Note from Reader:
Dear Mr. Horgan,
Something immediately caught my eye in your article on the Cyborg Soldier; namely that implanted electrodes in the brain are unreliable. From 1967 through 1976, I was employed as a biomedical engineer at the Smith Kettlewell Institute of Visual Sciences at the Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco. My senior investigator was interested in identifying the locus of the dominant Alpha EEG waves as well as other rhythms and was generally investigating so called Visual Evoked Potentials.
The spatial resolution of EEG recording at the time was limited to possibly 16 recording channels at certain defined locations on the scalp. My first assignment was to design and construct a recording instrument with at least 4 times that resolution and the result was a 48 channel EEG recorder which we used in numerous experiments, including some collaboration with Dr. Derek Fender at the Caltech Biological Information Systems lab, one of my former advisors.
Of course, that system used external skin surface electrodes, as do the systems today which record on the order of 100 simultaneous channels. During that period, another senior investigator at Smith Kettlewell, was interested Brindley's matrix implants over the visual cortex and the resulting phosphene generation. To the point, those electrode arrays and all later ones, designed to interface directly with neural tissue, shift position and degrade in time. Perhaps the most successful long term stimulation implants are the cochlear arrays, which are a rather different animal.
Given also the mechanisms of neural plasticity, yet another variable is added to stimulus and recording electrode interface longevity. Prosthesis to restore to some degree of limb loss or gross nerve trauma are certainly laudable in their intent; one can only hope that the bad dream of the Cyborg Soldier remains a science fiction item. But with advances in genetic engineering and the exploration of non-silicon based electronics, the fascination with the idea in some minds will, I'm afraid, be with us for some time to come.
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