Bioengineering and advanced robotics are blurring the line between science and science fiction, as the Pentagon pursues the creation of “super soldiers.”
Pushing the Limits
In April of 2002, two American F-16 pilots nearing the end of a 10-hour mission over Afghanistan mistakenly dropped a laser-guided bomb on a group of Canadian soldiers engaged in a training exercise. The accidental attack consequently killed four of the Canadians and injured another eight. This incident involved more than the usual instance of friendly fire based on mistaken identity – the American pilots were taking “go-pills,” an amphetamine issued by the U.S. military to be used as a “fatigue management tool.”
And that’s merely the tip of the pharmacological iceberg. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has been investigating the neurological causes of fatigue for some time, hoping to find ways of making soldiers immune. Currently, their Preventing Sleep Deprivation program is in its final year.
“What we’d like to do is devise ways that soldiers can continue to function when sleep deprived without cognitive impairment,” says DARPA spokesperson, Jan Walker.
The program is investigating a class of drugs known as ampakines, which have been shown to restore cognitive function in sleep-deprived primates. They’re also conducting long-term research of brain networks and molecular targets in flies and rodents to determine the proteins and genes that regulate states of sleep and wakefulness. According to DARPA, “the hope is that this may lead to an understanding of potential molecular targets in mammals and humans that could be targeted by next-generation pharmaceuticals.”
But why stop with eliminating the need to sleep? Other research is being conducted on a dense knot of neurons called the amygdala – the epicenter for feelings of fear and guilt in the brain. The goal: pills that numb feelings of remorse or shame and inhibit primal fear. Meanwhile, other efforts are being undertaken with the hope of allowing soldiers to go longer periods without eating or drinking.
Enhancing Physical Performance
DARPA claims such investigations are an attempt to “sustain and augment human performance,” to prevent humans from becoming the “weakest link” in the armed forces.
“In some senses DARPA is preparing for a post-human battlefield, one in which soldiers don’t really succumb to the ordinary weaknesses of humans today,” says Noah Shachtman, defense policy analyst and editor of Defensetech.org.
Other efforts are underway to push the human body beyond its physical limitations. The Exoskeletons for Human Performance Augmentation program, another DARPA initiative, is currently in its last stage and is aimed at creating a “fast-moving, heavily armored, high-power lower and upper body system.”
Exoskeletons will operate by means of a “haptic interface” where sensors detect natural muscle movements, allowing the robotic suit to mirror them and add to their strength. The University of California in Berkely has already constructed what might eventually become the legs of tomorrow’s soldier. Their Human Engineering Laboratory’s “Lower Extremity Enhancer” allows the wearer to effortlessly carry weights of 120 pounds. The full version of an armored exoskeleton is expected to be transitioned to the U.S. army for field testing in 2008. When complete, the bionic battle armor could be outfitted with anything from computers and communication equipment, to heavy weaponry.
Mind over Machine
It doesn’t end there. Breakthrough technology will allow severely wounded soldiers and amputees to remain fully operational and fit for combat. In 2000, Scientists at the Center for Neuroengineering at Duke University successfully created working Brain Interface Technology – a direct linkup between mind and machine. Funded by DARPA, Neurobiologist Miguel Nicolelis outfitted the brain of a macaque monkey with hundreds of electrodes that monitored its neurological activity as the animal manipulated a joystick to move a cursor across a computer screen. Nicolelis cracked the monkey’s neural code, matching brain signals to specific hand movements, and then took away the joystick. The electrodes now enabled the animal to move the cursor with intention of thought alone. Simultaneously, in another room, a robotic arm mirrored the monkey’s intended actions. Soon, the monkey was able to gain full control over the robotic arm with its mind.
Remember Luke’s new hand in The Empire Strikes Back? Two programs recently initiated at DARPA are tapping into the success at Duke University to create something similar.
Remember Luke’s new hand in The Empire Strikes Back? Two programs recently initiated at DARPA are tapping into the success at Duke University to create something similar. Revolutionizing Prosthetics 2007 and 2009 both look at creating advanced, biologically similar prosthetics. According to DARPA, “an upper extremity amputee would be able to feel and manipulate objects as that person would with a native hand.”
And while Brain Machine Interface technology will be a godsend to many civilians with disabilities – it has already allowed a quadriplegic to play pong and check his email – it may have many interesting military applications. If cybernetic warriors are hard to fathom, how about soldiers controlling weaponry with their thoughts? Noah Shachtman thinks it’s possible.
“While I see this technology primarily as a way to keep soldiers functioning,” he says, “there are obviously some other applications. If someone’s controlling a videogame with their mind, it’s certainly not a question they could be controlling a drone or a weapon, although it’s a long way off, technologically.”
The comic super hero Captain America, with his skin-tight patriotic jumpsuit, became an awe-inspiring commie-crushing powerhouse with the ingestion of a secretive “super-soldier serum.” It is clear we are now seeing the precursors to the establishment of a new era, where the combination of pharmaceuticals, neuroengineering and advanced robotics, has the potential to create an entire army of “super soldiers”. Unleashing these upgraded combatants seems hardly wise in a time of unaccountability within the U.S. military.
With DARPA’s “protect the troops” rhetoric running in the background of their human enhancement programs, it’s easy to avoid the ethical dilemmas of surpassing human “weaknesses” like sleep, emotion, and inborn physical capabilities.
“It will be interesting, as we are trying to make our soldiers less human, to see what happens,” comments Shachtman. “It’s not easy being a soldier. If you can take away some of their hardships, it could be a good thing, but the implications might be negative down the line.”
Whether applied domestically or militarily, as these types of human-enhancement technologies spread ubiquitously throughout the affluent West, the definition of what it means to be human will begin to blur. The result – as cyber-prophets have often dreaded – could be a populace sharply divided between the augmented and the unmodified
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