85. Benefits, Vulnerabilities, and the Ethics of Soldier Enhancement

[Editor’s Note: The United States Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) co-hosted the Mad Scientist Bio Convergence and Soldier 2050 Conference with SRI International at their Menlo Park, CA, campus on 8-9 March 2018, where participants discussed the advent of new biotechnologies and the associated benefits, vulnerabilities, and ethics associated with Soldier enhancement for the Army of the Future.  The following post is an excerpt from this conference’s final report.]

Source:  Max Pixel

Advances in synthetic biology likely will enhance future Soldier performance – speed, strength, endurance, and resilience – but will bring with it vulnerabilities, such as genomic targeting, that can be exploited by an adversary and/or potentially harm the individual undergoing the enhancement.

 

Emerging synthetic biology tools – e.g., CRISPR, Talon, and ZFN – present an opportunity to engineer Soldiers’ DNA and enhance their abilities. Bioengineering is becoming easier and cheaper as a bevy of developments are reducing biotechnology transaction costs in gene reading, writing, and editing. [1] Due to the ever-increasing speed and lethality of the future battlefield, combatants will need cognitive and physical enhancement to survive and thrive.

Cognitive enhancement could make Soldiers more lethal, more decisive, and perhaps more resilient. Using neurofeedback, a process that allows a user to see their brain activity in real-time, one can identify ideal brain states, and use them to enhance an individual’s mental performance. Through the mapping and presentation of identified expert brains, novices can rapidly improve their acuity after just a few training sessions. [2] Further, there are studies being conducted that explore the possibility of directly emulating those expert brain states with non-invasive EEG caps that could improve performance almost immediately. [3]  Dr. Amy Kruse, the Chief Scientific Officer at the Platypus Institute, referred to this phenomenon as “sitting on a gold mine of brains.”

There is also the potential to change and improve Soldier’s physical attributes. Scientists can develop drugs, specific dietary plans, and potentially use genetic editing to improve speed, strength, agility, and endurance.

Source: Andrew Herr, CEO Helicase

In order to fully leverage the capability of human performance enhancement, Andrew Herr, CEO of Helicase and an Adjunct Fellow at CNAS, suggested that human performance R&D be moved out of the medical field and become its own research area due to its differing objectives and the convergence between varying technologies.

Soldiers, Airmen, Marines, and Sailors are already trying to enhance themselves with commercial products – often containing unknown or unsafe ingredients – so it is incumbent on the U.S. military to, at the very least, help those who want to improve.

However, a host of new vulnerabilities, at the genetic level, accompany this revolutionary leap in human evolution. If one can map the human genome and more thoroughly scan and understand the brain, they can target genomes and brains in the same ways. Soldiers could become incredibly vulnerable at the genomic level, forcing the Army to not only protect Soldiers using body armor and armored vehicles, but also protect their identities, genomes, and physiologies.

Adversaries will exploit all biological enhancements to gain competitive advantage over U.S. forces. Targeted genome editing technology such as CRISPR will enable adversarial threats to employ super-empowered Soldiers on the battlefield and target specific populations with bioweapons. U.S. adversaries may use technologies recklessly to achieve short term gains with no consideration of long range effects. [4] [5]

There are numerous ethical questions that come with the enhancement of Soldiers such as the moral acceptability of the Army making permanent enhancements to Soldiers, the responsibility for returning transitioning Soldiers to a “baseline human,” and the general definition of what a “baseline human” is legally defined as.

Transhumanism H+ symbol by Antonu / Source:  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Transhumanism_h%2B.svg

By altering, enhancing, and augmenting the biology of the human Soldier, the United States Army will potentially enter into uncharted ethical territory. Instead of issuing items to Soldiers to complement their physical and cognitive assets, by 2050, the U.S. Army may have the will and the means to issue them increased biological abilities in those areas. The future implications and the limits or thresholds for enhancement have not yet been considered. The military is already willing to correct the vision of certain members – laser eye surgery, for example – a practice that could be accurately referred to as human enhancement, so discretely defining where the threshold lies will be important. It is already known that other countries, and possible adversaries, are willing to cross the line where we are not. Russia, most recently, was banned from competition in the 2018 Winter Olympics for widespread performance-enhancing drug violations that were believed to be supported by the Russian Government. [6] Those drugs violate the spirit of competition in the Olympics, but no such spirit exists in warfare.

Another consideration is whether or not the Soldier enhancements are permanent. By enhancing Soldiers’ faculties, the Army is, in fact, enhancing their lethality or their ability to defeat the enemy. What happens with these enhancements—whether the Army can or should remove them— when a Soldier leaves the Army is an open question. As stated previously, the Army is willing and able to improve eyesight, but does not revert that eyesight back to its original state after the individual has separated. Some possible moral questions surrounding Soldier enhancement include:

• If the Army were to increase a Soldier’s stamina, visual acuity, resistance to disease, and pain tolerance, making them a more lethal warfighter, is it incumbent upon the Army to remove those enhancements?

• If the Soldier later used those enhancements in civilian life for nefarious purposes, would the Army be responsible?

Answers to these legal questions are beyond the scope of this paper, but can be considered now before the advent of these new technologies becomes widespread.

Image by Leonardo da Vinci / Source: Flickr

If the Army decides to reverse certain Soldier enhancements, it likely will need to determine the definition of a “baseline human.” This would establish norms for features, traits, and abilities that can be permanently enhanced and which must be removed before leaving service. This would undoubtedly involve both legal and moral challenges.

 

The complete Mad Scientist Bio Convergence and Soldier 2050 Final Report can be read here.

To learn more about the ramifications of Soldier enhancement, please go to:

– Dr. Amy Kruse’s Human 2.0 podcast, hosted by our colleagues at Modern War Institute.

– The Ethics and the Future of War panel discussion, facilitated by LTG Jim Dubik (USA-Ret.) from Day 2 (26 July 2017) of the Mad Scientist Visualizing Multi Domain Battle in 2030-2050 Conference at Georgetown University.


[1] Ahmad, Zarah and Stephanie Larson, “The DNA Utility in Military Environments,” slide 5, presented at Mad Scientist Bio Convergence and the Soldier 2050 Conference, 8 March 2018.
[2] Kruse, Amy, “Human 2.0 Upgrading Human Performance,” Slide 12, presented at Mad Scientist Bio Convergence and the Soldier 2050 Conference, 8 March 2018
[3]https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnhum.2016.00034/full
[4] https://www.technologyreview.com/the-download/610034/china-is-already-gene-editing-a-lot-of-humans/
[5] https://www.c4isrnet.com/unmanned/2018/05/07/russia-confirms-its-armed-robot-tank-was-in-syria/
[6] https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/russia-banned-from-2018-olympics-following-doping-allegations/2017/12/05/9ab49790-d9d4-11e7-b859-fb0995360725_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.d12db68f42d1