Magazine article National Defense

Weaponizing the Brain: Neuroscience Advancements Spark Debate

Magazine article National Defense

Weaponizing the Brain: Neuroscience Advancements Spark Debate

Article excerpt

The rapid advancement of neuroscience and its corresponding technologies has prompted renewed and growing interest in both its development and the ethical concerns about the use of such techniques and tools in military and security contexts.

In 2008, the National Research Council of the National Academies of Science reported that the brain sciences showed potential for military and warfare applications, but were not yet wholly viable for operational use. However, by 2014, a subsequent report of the National Academies, "Emerging and Readily Available Technologies and National Security: A Framework for Addressing Ethical, Legal and Societal Issues," concurred with a series of white papers by the strategic multilayer assessment group of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and a 2013 Nuffield Council Report, stating that developments in the field had progressed to the extent that rendered the brain sciences viable, of definitive value and a realistic concern for the military.

This timeline is important, as it reflects the rapid and iteratively more sophisticated capability to create and exploit neuroscientific methods and technologies to access the brain, and assess and affect its functions of cognition, emotion and behavior.

Advancements in neuroscience could be used to create "super soldiers," link brains to weapon systems for command and control, or even manipulate groups or leaders into taking actions that they normally wouldn't do.

Obviously, new developments in brain science can be harnessed to improve neurological and psychiatric care within military medicine, and a number of ongoing Defense Department programs are doing so. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Army Medical Research and Materiel Command and the Naval Bureau of Medicine and Surgery are generating new techniques and technologies for treating brain injury, neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease, and certain psychiatric conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.

However, there is also considerable potential for dual-use applications of neuroscientific methods and tools that extend beyond the bedside. Many of these may reach battlefields.

These include the use of various drugs and forms of neurotechnologies such as neurofeedback, transcranial electrical and magnetic stimulation, and perhaps even implantable devices for training and performance optimization of intelligence and combat personnel. Brain-computer interfaces could be used to control aircraft, boats or unmanned vehicles. Military and warfare uses also entail the development and engagement of agents--such as drugs, microbes, toxins--and "devices as weapons," also called neuroweapons, to affect the nervous system and modify opponents' thoughts, feelings, senses, actions, health or--in some cases--to incur lethal consequences.

The use of neuroscience and technology to optimize the performance of military personnel could potentially lead to the creation of "super soldiers." This remains a provocative and contentious issue.

When viewed in a positive light, such approaches could --and arguably should--be employed to prevent warfare. For example, intelligence and military personnel who have increased cognitive, emotional and/or behavioral capacities might be able to more easily and capably detect threats, function under arduous conditions with less stress, and have increased sensitivity to socio-cultural and physical cues and nuances in foreign environments. They could be more effective in reducing the risk of violence.

These goals led to efforts such as the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity's Sociocultural Content in Language program and the Metaphor program, which both sought to improve insight into cultural linguistic and emotional norms. DARPA's Narrative Networks program aimed to utilize neurocognitive science and technology to improve narratives in socio-cultural contexts. …

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