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Human Enhancement Technologies – Changing the Nature of Warfare?

Written by Amelie Theussen, Ph.D. Candidate at Center for War Studies

Besides ever improving drones and the possibility for fully autonomous killer robots, discussed previously on Research Frontiers, modern technological progress allows for a third area of development – human enhancement. In his articleTranshumanism and War for the Global Policy Journal, Nayef Al-Rodhan, neuroscientist and honorary fellow at the University of Oxford, looks at the implications of the development and acquisition of human enhancement technologies for military purposes.

The strive for human enhancement, which refers to an alteration of the human body beyond its normal healthy state, was born out of the recognition of the soldier as the weakest link on modern battlefields, due to his/her inherent physical, cognitive, and psychological vulnerabilities. However, these human enhancement technologies raise profound ethical and security concerns, and might well be changing the nature of warfare, international relations and geopolitics. Al-Rodhan sees the danger that “in their most extreme form, such techniques could push us beyond what it means to be human, effectively bringing us on the brink of transhumanism. Transhumanism challenges the very notion of the human condition as fixed, rooted and constant. Interventions… will eventually alter emotions (e.g. fear) which are the result of millennia of evolution”.

While this might sound like science-fiction to you, Al-Rodhan reports that the US Army has been using stimulant drugs, such as amphetamine and later Modafinil, for decades to enhance the vigilance and physical performance of its troops. Additionally, moves are being made to incorporate technology with the human body. The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is at the forefront of developing human enhancement technologies with their focus on biotechnology and biomimetics. Federal funding for their projects is growing continuously. Several methods of neuro-stimulation are being developed, to improve performance and alertness, ranging from electro-stimulation to exploring the possibility of planting a remote-controlled micro-processing chip beneath the skull. While these neuro-stimulation methods allow us “to boost our ability to learn, pay attention to the environment, better recall information, take risks or exercise self-control”, Al-Rodhan argues they can produce unintended side effects: “soldiers’ reactions, responsiveness, and emotionality could be pre-programmed with precision. They could become faster, more agile, alert, more receptive and fast learners, more disciplined or docile, or if needed less empathetic”.

What does this mean for warfare, international relations and geopolitics? Enhancement raises a plethora of ethical issues: are soldiers becoming dehumanized tools? What about safety considerations and the norms of ethical medical conduct? What about long-term health consequences for the soldiers? Or the increased inequalities between ‘normal’ and ‘enhanced’ soldiers? Legal questions might address the issues of responsibility and accountability: if control over an enhanced soldier is lost, who is accountable? The soldier, the engineer, or the medical team? For warfare, morale and unit cohesion might be affected due to the creation of a two class system. Additionally, the asymmetry of capabilities on international scale will increase even further, where countries employing enhanced soldiers will gain an advantage over those with non-enhanced fighters. It is imaginable that the international community will react similar to human enhancements as to the use of drones: while some herald the advantages that come with such developments and regard the use of these new technologies as justifiable, appropriate and defensible, others might stress the increased asymmetry, ethical dilemmas and unjust use of capabilities.

Will the potential effects of these human enhancement technologies on emotions, remorselessness and increased physical power lead to an increase of brutality in warfare, as Al-Rodhan fears?

Interested in reading what looks like real-life science-fiction? Find Nayef Al-Rodhan’s articleTranshumanism and War at the Global Policy Journal here, or at the website of The International Relations and Security Network here (same article). And if you want to take a look at DARPA’s projects, check out their website here.