‘The long-term Defense implications of ﬁnding ways to turn thoughts into acts, if it [sic] can be developed, are enormous: Imagine U.S. warﬁghters that only need use the power of their thoughts to do things at great distances’ (emphasis in original). — Strategic Plan: Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, February 2003
These mechanical and electronic innovations required extraordinary resources, foresight, intelligence, and patience. Unlike other areas of government, decades of development are acceptable in the DARPA framework. Today the agency is turning its considerable ingenuity and generous funding of taxpayers ($3 billion in ﬁscal year 2015) to biology, including, as we have seen, the enhancing of human performance.
The onrush of discoveries about the brain and the concomitant technological advancements suggest at least a few areas of interest. Two of these—improving intellectual endurance and achieving mental control at a distance—are mentioned in DARPA’s Strategic Plan. Others, such as memory enhancement and distant brain scanning (by means of a device that could detect telltale blood ﬂow in certain neural systems from a distance), also suggest interesting developments at the intersection of neuroscience and national security. In addition, they present formidable ethical questions that our society has barely articulated, let alone carefully addressed. Are there places that science just should not go when it comes to what Woody Allen once called his second favorite organ?
Longtime Minneapolis residents tell stories about the woozy, skinny young men seen about town during World War II. They were conscientious objectors involved in sleep-and nutrition-deprivation experiments. Problems of endurance and alertness are endemic to soldiers on the march. Infantry troops often subsist for a year at a time on four hours of sleep a night and modest rations. Any advantage that can be achieved in sheer concentration and physical stamina has long been prized, and biological innovations have been applied to this goal. As early as 1883, Bavarian soldiers on maneuvers were given cocaine to see if the drug would help overcome fatigue.
Paradoxically, some of the most infamous examples of drug experiments by the military have had as their purpose the inducing of confusion and panic, rather than clarity and cogency. Notoriously, American ofﬁcials found that the North Koreans and “Red” Chinese of using hallucinogens to “brainwash” POWs during the Korean conﬂict. During the 1950s, interest in determining the psychological effects of psychotropic drugs was rampant, especially in the CIA and the U.S. Army. One of the CIA’s activities under the code name MKUltra was the dosing of unsuspecting individuals with LSD, including army anthrax expert Frank Olson, who fell to his death from a New York City hotel in 1953 under circumstances that have led some to conclude that the drugging was part of an assassination. That same year, a New York City tennis pro named Harold Blauer died following a mescaline overdose in an involuntary experiment at New York State’s Psychiatric Institute.
Blaur, who had been admitted to the institute following a diagnosis of clinical depression, was an unwitting subject under a secret contract between the state and the Army Chemical Corps. In the 1960s, thousands of soldiers were given LSD in tests to which their consent was questionable. Many at least seem to have known they were going to be exposed to an hallucinogen, but not where or how.
These incidents, it should be noted, came in the wake of the trial of Nazi doctors in Nuremberg, Germany, after World War II, and the famous code written by the judges. The ﬁrst line of the Nuremberg Code is, “The voluntary consent of the human subject is absolutely essential.” Less than two months after Harold Blaur’s death, the secretary of defense issued a top-secret memorandum that made the code the Pentagon’s policy for atomic, biological, and chemical warfare experiments. Yet the U.S. government funded a number of both covert and unclassiﬁed psychological experiment programs through the 1970s without adequate consent. Some of them did not involve drugs, such as studies intended to incite emotional disturbance in postpartum women at a lying-in hospital in Montreal. Institutionalized people have historically been popular experimental subjects.
Academicians were intensely interested in personality structure in those days. A Harvard study pursued psychic deconstruction by humiliating undergraduates. As described in Alston Chase’s ‘Harvard and the Unabomber,’ one of the subjects was a young student named Ted Kaczynski.
But these days DARPA seems more concerned with enhancing soldiers’ capacity to go without food or sleep, and even to heal their own injuries, than it is with psychic deconstruction or reprogramming. As reported by the journalist Noah Shachtman and described in DARPA’s website, a project called “Metabolic dominance” aims to develop a “Nutraceutical” (nutrition and pharmaceutical) that would vastly improve soldiers’ endurance. The agency has also invested in sleep-reduction experiments, and in examining whether the body’s core temperature can be altered depending on weather conditions. Seriously injured soldiers might be able to go into a sort of hibernation while they healed, perhaps after self-administering advanced wound-healing medication.
“The ultimate goal,” DARPA says, “is to enable superior physical and physiological performance by controlling energy metabolism on demand.”
The ethical issues suggested by such work should be ﬂying off this page by now. How will individuals be recruited to try what is obviously a very dangerous experiments? If experiments are done in secret, how will they be ethically reviewed? What are the dangers of such information falling into “the wrong hands,” and are there any “right hands” for this kind of knowledge? Is any extension of human abilities justiﬁed by the need for the state to protect a society that is free and democratic? Or is nature itself at hazard for distortions that make the ingestion of genetically modiﬁed organisms pale in comparison?
DO YOU REMEMBER WHEN?
One aspect of cognitive capacity that would be of immense value to combat personnel is an improved memory. Battle assignments can be complex and easily misremembered when fast-moving events unfold. Fighter pilots in target-rich environments, for example, have to store a vast quantity of information.
Both biology and artiﬁcial intelligence offer possibilities here. Neuroscientists have found a gene that codes for NMDA receptors in the brain. When they gave mice extra copies of the gene for a type of NMDA receptor, the mice showed superior learning skills. Genomic and proteomic medicine has made this form of enhancement possible. But would individuals then be overloaded with memories, storing vast quantities of detail that would normally be ignored because we have evolved to ﬁlter out or delete useless bits of information? Such an innovation could literally be maddening, let alone counter-evolutionary, unless the effects were short-lived. And who would want to volunteer for the ﬁrst trial?
The artiﬁcial-intelligence approach would be more straightforward: engineer a direct connection between your brain and your smartphone. Information could be not only uploaded to the brain but also downloaded to your phone. DARPA’s LifeLog program was a step away: The idea of LifeLog is to create a database with every communication an individual has written, all pictures taken of them, and every bit of information about them. Then use the Global Positioning System to track all their movements and sensors to record what they say, see, and hear and add that to the database. The unfolding events in a potential terrorist’s life could be reconstructed in all their dimensionality. But so could yours or mine.
Learning about the mechanism of remembering also involves learning about the mechanism of forgetting. In the ﬁlm, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, ex-lovers undergo a high-tech brain erasing procedure to forget about the pain of breakup. In a literally touching moment in Star Trek, Mr. Spock engages in a Vulcan mind-meld with Captain Kirk, without his consent, to help him forget a tragic love affair. Less romantically, undercover agents would beneﬁt from the ability to lose their memories upon capture. Neuropsychologists have already found that deliberate memory loss among victims of parental abuse is both a demonstrable mechanism (they are not “lying” when they say they don’t recall) and a very effective method of defense.
But mucking around with memory raises signiﬁcant questions about personal identity. As far back as David Hume in the eighteenth century, philosophers have noted that our idea of ourselves is intimately bound up with our remembered experiences, including previous ideas about ourselves that have entered the stream of consciousness. Anyone who believes that there are certain boundaries that should not be crossed must be concerned about the modiﬁcation of the ability to remember and to forget.
Uri Geller gained fame decades ago for his ostensible ability to bend spoons using only mental energy. Then magicians did the same thing. Although Geller still has his advocates, agencies like DARPA seem reluctant to throw in their strategic lot with mentalists. Instead, in its effort to help warﬁghters “do things at great distances,” DARPA initiated its brain-machine Interfaces Program, which has shown that a monkey can control a robot arm using only neural impulses. In a 2002 report to Congress, DARPA insisted that these are not merely the impulses that normally control the monkey’s arm, but the very thoughts about arm movement themselves, transmitted to a robot limb in another room. Similarly, in recent work at Duke University, scientists have shown that monkeys can be trained to engage in complicated movements, with neural processes alone, by means of devices that involve both reaching for and grasping an object. At the 2003 meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, researchers from Duke noted that they had proved the same principle in humans undergoing neurosurgery (who cooperate because brain surgery anesthesia is local, not general) and that they could safely identify the cells that initiate actions.
Ultimately, it is now possible for paralyzed people to control limbs through computer implants.
Once this can be done, those same impulses, digitized by a computer, can be sent as encrypted messages over the Internet to do things at any distance the electrons will travel, including maneuvering aircraft, inspecting a target, releasing weapons, and so forth, at very close range. A soldier could stay at a safe distance while controlling a drone; an operator far from the battleﬁeld could do the same thing. Clearly we’ve come a long way from arguing whether Uri Geller actually bent that spoon.
General Patton is said to have lost his command after World War II when he told a journalist he regretted a world in which distant aircraft could determine the course of combat. But in fact the opportunity provided by ground warfare to engage in heroic acts at close range has never carried much weight in comparison with tactical advantage. Is any kind of tactical advantage acceptable, or at any point are some advantages so profound as to be unfair? (Probably not.) Defenders of these development efforts will surely observe that they are likely to alleviate one of the most vexing problems of modern war, like the effects of lethal weapons on unarmed civilians.
Since the 1970s, reports have circulated about Soviet and Chinese interest in “Psychotronic Weapons” intended to inﬂuence psychological and physiological processes at a distance, perhaps through electromagnetic radiation. Those who suspect innovative national security agencies like DARPA of malicious intentions believe it will continue to probe all the possibilities presented by neuroscientiﬁc advances, including mind control. As evidence, human rights advocates claim that references to mind control or psychotronic weapons, including summaries of information about Russian and Chinese efforts, remain classiﬁed.
According to U.S. experts, although Psychotronic Warfare has been seized upon by those who use security agency is controlling or disrupting their brains, its goal as information warfare would be to attack communications systems, thus causing a catastrophic infrastructure failure. Jamming transmissions by Saddam Hussein’s radar installations in the run-up to the Iraq war was an elementary example of such tactics. Similar principles might be applied to the mental energy of the warﬁghters themselves, perhaps by “pulse-wave weapons,” which would disrupt motor signals from the central cortex.
Perhaps more within reach are developments in functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI ) technology. The advent of fMRI has been a boon to neuroscientists interested in correlating blood ﬂow with just about every imaginable human experience. If the basic mechanism could be improved to detect blood ﬂow at some distance from the target brain—something like the MRI systems within which surgery can be conducted—it is now possible to install surveillance systems in sensitive public spaces like airports. Individuals with increased blood ﬂow in neural systems associated with aggressive behaviors could be singled out and stopped for questioning. Whether this approach would provide a security beneﬁt or not might be beside the point for authorities anxious to appear to be doing all they can to “protect the public,” as air travelers have noticed in the past few years.
If the basic mechanism could be improved to detect blood ﬂow at some distance from the target brain—something like the MRI systems within which surgery can be conducted—it would be possible to install surveillance systems in sensitive public spaces like airports.
ETHICS ON DARPA’S MIND?
In the largest sense, what seems to be at hazard are our most basic ideas about personal identity and liberty. What sorts of ground rules can be set for science and for states? Are there regions of forbidden knowledge? Or, because the prospects appear too attractive for governments to ignore (and too important to concede to their adversaries), how should democratic societies prepare themselves to manage these immensely powerful capabilities? We seem to be left with the ironic conclusion that the more tools the neurosciences present for national security purposes, the less secure each of us will be.
Discussions about ethics require the oxygen of transparency, precisely the item in short supply in national security matters. Yet the failure to engage in some prospective analysis of moral issues during the course of technological innovations can have vexing consequences for future generations. Aware of the experience of the atomic physicists, for example, geneticists resolved early on to open themselves up to public scrutiny. The U.S. government’s main funding program for genetics research has from the beginning set aside substantial funds to sponsor projects on ethics. The vigorous public discourse on ethics in genetics is partly owed to that program.
Two complementary options are available to stimulate a similar public debate about the pursuit of these novel technologies that apply to national security objectives. One option is continue to fund research programs in which proposals are submitted for examining the kinds of problems raised in this article. Even if the detailed mechanisms cannot be shared, the issues at stake are clear enough and should be debated in scholarly journals and on op-ed pages. A second option is to support “ethical, legal and social implications advisory panel “ like DARPA, composed of individuals with a range of expertise and who have appropriate security clearances but are not employees of the federal government.
Whatever the means used for harnessing the knowledge that is forthcoming to acceptable public ends, our society will need to understand and debate the security options made possible by the new neuroscience. As these war ﬁghting innovations bear fruit, applied science will once again have played a decisive role in changing the face of armed conﬂict. In this case, science will have shifted the battleﬁeld to our very brains.