A future of brain-controlled tanks, automated attack drones and mind-reading interrogation techniques may arrive sooner than later, but advances in neuroscience that will usher in a new era of combat come with tough ethical implications for both the military and scientists responsible for the technology, according to one of the country’s leading bioethicists.
“Everybody agrees that conflict will be changed as new technologies are coming on,” says Jonathan Moreno, author ofMind Wars: Brain Science and the Military in the 21st Century. “But nobody knows where that technology is going.”
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Moreno warns in an essay published in the science journal PLoS Biology Tuesday that the military’s interest in neuroscience advancements “generates a tension in its relationship with science.”
“The goals of national security and the goals of science may conflict. The latter employs rigorous standards of validation in the expansion of knowledge, while the former depends on the most promising deployable solutions for the defense of the nation,” he writes.
Much of neuroscience focuses on returning function to people with traumatic brain injuries, he says. Just as Albert Einstein didn’t know his special theory of relativity could one day be used to create a nuclear weapon, neuroscience researchintended to heal could soon be used to harm.
“Neuroscientists may not consider how their work contributes to warfare,” he adds.
Moreno says there is a fine line between using neuroscience devices to allow an injured person to regain baseline functions and enhancing someone’s body to perform better than their natural body ever could.
“Where one draws that line is not obvious, and how one decides to cross that line is not easy. People will say ‘Why would we want to deny warfighters these advantages?'” he says.
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Moreno isn’t the only one thinking about this. The Brookings Institution’s Peter Singer writes in his book, Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century, that “‘the Pentagon’s real-world record with things like the aboveground testing of atomic bombs, Agent Orange, and Gulf War syndrome certainly doesn’t inspire the greatest confidence among the first generation of soldiers involved [in brain enhancementresearch.]”
The military, scientists and ethicists are increasingly wondering how neuroscience technology changes the battlefield. The staggering possibilities are further along than many think. There is already development on automated drones that are programmed to make their own decisions about who to kill within the rules of war. Other ideas that are closer-than-you-think to becoming a military reality: Tanks controlled from half a world away, memory erasures that could prevent PTSD, and “brain fingerprinting” that could be used to extract secrets from enemies.Moreno foretold some of these developments when he first published Mind Wars in 2006, but not without trepidation.
“I was afraid I’d be dismissed as a paranoid schizophrenic when I first published the book,” he says. But then a funny thing happened—the Department of Defense and other military groups began holding panels on neurotechnology to determine how and when it should be used. I was surprised how quickly the policy questions moved forward. Questions like: ‘Can we use autonomous attack drones?’ ‘Must there be a human being in the vehicle?’ ‘How much of a payload can it have?’. There are real questions coming up in the international legal community.”
All of those questions will have to be answered sooner than later, Moreno says, along with a host of others. Should soldiers have the right to refuse “experimental” brain implants? Will the military want to use some of this technology before science deems it safe?
“There’s a tremendous tension about this,” he says. “There’s a great feeling of responsibility that we push this stuff out so we’re ahead of our adversaries.”