• Kaushik Subramanian

Military applications of Neurotech- The future of national security, defence and terrestrial warfare

From time immemorial humans have been involved in the art of warfare. We’ve evolved from cavemen using bones, stones, and sticks for defending their territory to medieval soldiers using bows, arrows, and swords to gunpowder and dynamite to the Atom bomb that ripped apart Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Throughout history, mankind has always endeavored to increase the efficiency and physical capacity of soldiers on the battlefield and thereby making armies more powerful and efficient. For example, Genghis Khan was able to unify different tribes and kingdoms under his leadership, through the increased speed and efficacy of his ferocious troops on the battlefield. Jump forward to the present day and what are nations doing to improve their military strength, speed, and efficiency!?

Countries like Britain, France, China, and USA have been increasingly funding studies on the application of Neuroscience and technology for the understanding and harnessing of electrical signals that originate in the brain’s motor cortex. The US military has invested millions of dollars in a ‘Brain Chip’ that can plug the brains of soldiers directly into computers, essentially creating ‘Super-soldiers’ with increased cognitive capacity and motor skills. The French armed forces have invested in the research and development of non-invasive brain implants that can increase the physical and cognitive abilities of soldiers in battle to improve battlefield performance, whilst still maintaining operational superiority. In recent years, the UK has seen a rapid increase in Neurotechnology start-ups that aim to develop new-age Neural Interface technologies that not only have applications for combat, but also a wide variety of non-military and non-medical applications.

The triple helix of Government, Research Sectors, and the Tech Industry working together in harmony is essential for enabling the potential of Neurotechnology and Brain Sciences across diverse applications. The advanced neural devices which are currently being developed at the DARPA(Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency) in USA, can also be used for therapeutic applications like improved resolution and precision of vision. In addition to vision, they can also be used to advance the researchers’ understanding of the neural aspects of hearing and speech, which can, in turn, lead to novel treatments for people with sensory defects. The super-fast and iteratively more advanced capability to create and employ neuroscience-based methods and technologies aids in harnessing the brain and positively impacting and improving cognition, behavior, and emotion.

Another exciting application of brain sciences and neurotech in battle is the linking of the brains of enhanced soldiers to advanced weapons systems, aircraft, boats, and unmanned vehicles for neural command and control. These brain chips can be used to improve and optimize the training and performance of combat personnel. Other exciting applications include Transcranial electrical stimulation, Neurofeedback devices, development and use of neuro weapons such as toxins, drugs, microbes to affect and modify thoughts, emotions, senses, actions, and health of enemy soldiers. This remains to be a controversial and debatable topic since these neuro weapons can have lethal consequences. That’s why the best way to employ this technology is to use it to prevent combat and warfare in the first place, thus avoiding the risk of bloodshed. To illustrate this, imagine the combat and intelligence personnel with improved cognitive, emotional, and behavioral capacities. They can more easily and successfully predict threats, help the soldiers function under duress such as extreme climates, and more sensitively acclimatize to physical and socio-cultural cues and nuances in foreign environments.

But then, what are the effects that such technology can have on the physical and mental health of neuro-modulatory super-soldiers? Care must be taken not to let the soldiers become morally depraved, quasi-robots without any autonomy. However, the rapid progress and globalization of such technology also raise ethical concerns about the development, procurement, and use of neuro weapons. The increasing availability of devices like gene-editing kits can be used to modify toxins and lethal microbes on a gene level, thereby increasing their toxicity. These potent agents can be employed for neuro-manipulation of the thoughts, feelings, sentiments, and actions of say, a military leader. They can also be applied to a bigger population which can have ripple effects such as changes in behaviors, emotions, and ideas across a group or community. Such actions raise serious concerns about herd mind-control, privacy, and mass surveillance. Seemingly harmless devices like ‘Brain Implants’ could potentially be used to alter or modify the neural states, attitudes, personalities, and everyday behaviors of a large group of the population. Brain implants can also have unintended consequences like the loss of motor function.

That’s why it is paramount for governments, corporations, and research agencies to create a set of ethical and legal rules or guidelines for any and all kinds of Neurotechnology. This set of guidelines will ensure that the potential of Neurotech is utilized for benign and humane defence purposes!

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