California Polytechnic Researchers Report Says Discussion Needed Before Soldiers Are Enhanced With Technology

This handout photo shows the “Scorpion ensemble” of battle dress for U.S. soldiers that was developed at the U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center and expected to see action 2011. This combat uniform will weighs only 40 to 50 pounds and includes communications, night vision gear, body senors and the latest technology in protective armor. (Photo: AP/U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center,Sarah Underhill, handout)

Although the idea of using technology to enhance the human body or mind for both health and military purposes is nothing new, a report is saying the field is advancing so rapidly that the ethical considerations for military use can no longer be overlooked.

The report by California Polytechnic State University researchers Patrick Lin,  Maxwell Mehlman and Keith Abney for The Greenwall Foundation states there is a “significant lag time” between development of technology and discussion of its proper use. They believe the government from a policy direction is not yet adequately considering the implications of such technology either.

They wrote:

As with other emerging military technologies, such as robotics and cyber-capabilities, human enhancement technologies challenge existing laws and policy, as well as underlying ethical values. But while the implications of human enhancement generally have been widely discussed, little analysis currently exists for the military context—specifically operational, ethical, and legal implications of enhancing warfighters, such as:

How safe should these human enhancements and new medical treatments be prior to their deployment (considering recent controversies such as mandatory anthrax vaccinations)? Must enhancements be reversible or temporary (considering that most warfighters will return to society as civilians)? Could enhancements count as “biological weapons” under the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (considering that the term is not clearly defined)?

[...]

[...] it is imperative to start considering the issues before novel technologies fully arrive on the scene and in the theater of war.

The report “Enhanced Warfighters; Risk, Ethics and Policy” delves into not only the ethical implications, but also the legal, policy and potential misuses of technological enhancement of soldiers. These enhancements range from removable exoskeletons to internal implants to drugs — all of which could be used for a variety of purposes ranging from enhanced mobility, protection, senses and more.

California Polytechnic Researchers Report Says Discussion Needed Before Soldiers Are Enhanced With Technology

Example of a soldier wearing an exoskeleton, which is designed to add strength. (Photo: DARPA via Wikipedia)

The implications from such enhancements also vary. Some impact the soldier directly (should they be required to take up an enhancement that would require a surgical operation?) while others impact the community even outside of wartime (what happens when enhanced soldiers are reintegrated into society as veterans?). These are just a couple of the many considerations in the report.

Wired’s Danger Room reported about “biomods” last week, which would genetically enhance soldiers with “mutant powers” and could be considered an example of an enhancement technology. Here’s a bit more from Wired about Andrew Herr and the research he is conducting along this line to give you a sense of what’s being done in the field:

In 2009 Herr was assigned to a Pentagon-funded project aimed at understanding “unit cohesion.” That is, what makes one group of soldiers keep fighting through hunger, thirst, exhaustion, confusion, and the deaths of comrades. Unit cohesion has won and lost conflicts since the beginning of warfare, but it was still poorly understood.

For his unit cohesion study, Herr interviewed Army infantrymen, Navy submariners and Air Force drone operators. Partway into the two-year study Herr had an epiphany. “The ‘aha’ moment,” Herr tells Danger Room, “was seeing a link between an objective physiological phenomenon — knowing the effects on the body and brain of stress hormones — and how that matched with all the literature on unit cohesion.”

In other words, Herr had a vision of the stress hormones that our glands pump into our bloodstreams in life-or-death situations, and, in turn, impact the behavior of trained combat units. Tracing this physiological blueprint for combat effectiveness, Herr realized it could be altered biologically. “All of sudden the Matrix made sense,” Herr says, referencing the secret world of the eponymous 1999 sci-fi film.

The military could select troops and their officers for their unique, inborn ability to cope with stress. Or it could directly tweak a soldier’s body functions — re-balancing the normal hormonal cocktail so the soldier doesn’t panic, doesn’t retreat and keeps on fighting, even when the odds are against him and any normal person would just give up.

Specific enhancement methods Herr studied include: focused diet and exercise regimens; injections of the stress-inhibiting brain molecule neuropeptide Y; electroshock-style Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation to boost thinking; and gene therapy for enhancing a whole host of body functions by literally altering a person’s DNA with viruses or chemicals.

Wired’s article on this specific enhancement goes into even greater detail. Read the full post here.

Some of the questions the California Polytechnic researchers believe the military needs to ask as it moves forward with creating these types of enhancements are: is there a legitimate military use? Is it really necessary, meaning there aren’t other alternatives that could accomplish the intended goal? Do the benefits outweigh the risks? Is the solider’s dignity maintained and is their consent received? Also, transparency with the public about enhancement research and use is mentioned as important. The researchers cited public outcry at recent legislation for drone use over U.S. soil due to feelings of lack of transparency and understanding about the technology’s use.

The researchers conclude that more collaboration between stakeholders needs to take place as “science and technologies underwriting human enhancements are marching ahead.”

Read the full report that will be distributed Jan. 1, 2013, here.

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(H/T: Wired)