Neuroscience has ramifications for future warfare, and the scientific community must be more aware. So says a report published today by the Royal Society titled Neuroscience, conflict and security, which cites interest in neuroscience from the military community, and identifies particular technologies that may arise. Among them is the potential for “neural interface systems” (NIS) to bring about weapons controllable by the human mind, though the reports also discusses more benign military applications of neuroscience, such as fostering a revolution in prosthetic limbs.
The report distinguishes between two types of neural interface: those that “input into” the brain’s neural systems, and those that monitor neural activity to predict “motor intentions” – outcomes of thought processes, essentially. Specific NIS technologies mentioned by the report include both EEG and electronic implants, citing the success of BrainGate in allowing paralyzed patients to control the motion of an on-screen cursor by “simply imagining this motion.”
“NIS such as BrainGate could also be used to allow long-range control of motion,” the report finds. “Electrode arrays implanted in the nervous system could provide a connection between the nervous system of an able-bodied individual and a specific hardware or software system. Since the human brain can process images, such as targets, much faster than the subject is consciously aware of, a neurally interfaced weapons systems could provide significant advantages over other system control methods in terms of speed and accuracy.”
Sensing the battlefield
The report also discusses the sensory potential of NIS technology. Infrared or sonar sensors connected to magnetic implants on the human body could allow combatants and law enforcers to effectively feel the heat or proximity of an object. On these points and others, the report highlights not only technological possibilities, but also that ethical and legal questions that surround them.
The report highlights a wealth of current search and available funding from various US and UK government agencies into neuroscience applications. DARPA is funding programs seeking to enhance human performance under stress, and neural-controlled prosthetics. The US Air Force 711th Human Performance Wing invites research into alertness management, as well as the identification of “human-borne threats” and individuals resistant to “stressors and countermeasures on cognitive performance and physiological stamina.” Meanwhile the UK Ministry of Defence has launched a national PhD which includes bio-electronics integration, synthetic synaesthesia and exploiting the subconscious.
By identifying active military research into neuroscience, the Royal Society paints a future of warfare influenced by neuroscience applications as a very real possibility. As well as neuroscience’s massive potential for benign medical applications, the Royal Society is seeking to raise awareness among the scientific community of “hostile” applications.
“Studies suggest that the great majority of scientists have little to no knowledge of their obligations under these treaties, nor a wide awareness of the potential malign applications of their research,” the report concludes, before recommending that the UK government should strengthen communications with industry and academia to “scope for significant future trends and threats posed by the applications of neuroscience.”
The full report and its set of recommendations is available from the Royal Society website. Report chair, Professor Rod Flower FRS, summarizes the report in the following video.