Iron Man. The Terminator. Avatar. These are all movies that offer glimpses into sci-fi imaginations of the collision between technology and military combat. But is it really science fiction? The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has launched several multi-million dollar, government-funded projects involving brain-computer interface (BCI) for years now, specifically since the early 1970’s. They also heavily fund cognitive neuroscience research studies. Why? Because BCI has wide-reaching applications within the military. Some of these applications could be very
beneficial and prompt little concern, but there are some applications that raise some serious red flags concerning potential misuse. The applications of neurotechnology in the military that we will be discussing are cognitive enhancement of soldiers and BCI technology used in combat, for intelligence analysis, and for injured soldier rehabilitation. In addition to ethical concerns over misuse, there are ethical concerns regarding BCI techniques in the military. The current military standard for BCI technique is using non-invasive EEG methods; however, animal studies have shown that more invasive methods, such as electrocorticography (electrodes on the exposed brain surface) and invasive direct connection to the brian, elicit much more effective outcomes and results. As you will soon see, the use of neurotechnology by the military is a perfect example of the complex intersections between ethics and the use of BCI.
Cognitive Enhancement of Soldiers:
There are several known ways to stimulate the brain and improve cognitive functioning and efficiency. The methods of interest within the military are transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) and transcranial direct stimulation (TDCS). TMS uses an alternating magnetic field to activate specific brain regions, whereas TDCS uses precise electrical currents to alter specific brain cells’ sensitivity to incoming stimuli. The effect of these methods depend heavily on what region of the brain is being altered, and these physical and chemical alterations to the brain can last anywhere from a few minutes to hours and sometimes even to days. In general, the current military focus is on neurostimulation that would improve a soldier’s visual perception, response time, working memory, and motion. While these effects of neurostimulation are widely known and used in other industries outside the military, there are some other novel effects that could very easily be misused within the military. For example, neurostimulation of the prefrontal cortex has the ability to induce a person to lie more often and more convincingly and to induce a person to be more compliant to commands that pose a punishment for disobedience. Now, that would be seriously concerning if actually used within the military. General ethical concerns involving such cognitive alterations via neurostimulation are consent, legal regulation, and unnatural enhancement. Would soldiers be complied to undergo such alterations if neurostimulation became common in the military? Since current military regulations of enhancement drugs do not apply to technology, what legal regulations would be put in place to monitor the ethical use of such neurotechnology? Where would we draw the line as to what enhancement or alterations go “too far,” and is altering a person’s cognitive identity truly ethical to begin with? Alternatively, regarding misuse, what if such neurostimulation techniques were used in the future to hypothetically promote terrorism and unstable warfare? All of these concerns have thus so far limited the widespread use of neurostimulation in the military, but it is still concerning to think how the required technology for neurostimulation is all there and ready for use for several potential military purposes.
BCI in Intelligence Analysis:
Geospatial Intelligence Analysts work for the military under high-stake pressure. They are given real-time aerial imagery and expected to analyze the complex images in order to inform army personnel about potential battle locations, enemy forces, combat operations, etc. in a timely manner. Thus, the military has struggled with how to make this channeling of information more efficient. Rather than replacing these people with artificial intelligence systems, the military has decided to use BCI to enhance intelligence analyst’s visual processing. DARPA specifically launched the “Neurotechnology for Intelligence Analysts” (NIA) project to accomplish this. BCI can help analysts more accurately and quickly assess an aerial image. The way this works is based on a specific, rapid brain signal fired during the early detection of targets or items of interest in a complex still image. The EEG would pick up on this signal, and thus the BCI would use this electrical input to detect important information in the high-density aerial images.
BCI Technologies in Combat:
Many DARPA projects are committed to exploring how BCI can be incorporated during combat to improve national defense. Such BCI would respond to soldiers’ neural signals to accomplish a variety of
functions, including soldier-to-soldier communication on the battlefield, controlling vehicles and machinery, and automated detection.
“Advanced Speech Encoding Program”:
This DARPA program focuses on the development of EEG sensors that would encode brain signals and translate it into audible language. However, there’s a twist. This BCI doesn’t just produce language; alternatively, it would produce audible language from one soldier’s thoughts and then send that message to another soldier’s BCI headset. This project, which is called “Silent Talk,” would allow soldiers to silently communicate with each other using solely their thoughts. This would eliminate the potentially dangerous need for body gestures or spoken communication on the battlefield, and could allow more efficient communication in especially hostile and loud environments. This would also be particularly useful is special operations deployments.
“Cognitive Technology Threat Warning System”:
While the “Advanced Speech Encoding Program” focuses on an auditory neuroprosthetic for soldiers, this proposal by DARPA focuses on a visual neuroprosthetic for soldiers to use on the battlefield to provide automated detection of environmental threats. This non-invasive technology would be similar to binoculars but more interactive due to the use of BCI. The system analyzes sensory stimuli based on the soldier’s cognitive visual processing and thus alerts the soldier of both indirect and direct threats. It would therefore enhance a soldier’s visual perception and allow them to respond quickly to subconsciously-detected environmental threats or targets.
BCI Control of Vehicles and Machinery:
Telepresence is the concept of allowing a human operator in another location to remotely control a robot using BCI, which would be useful in hostile terrain and could be used in the brain-controlled-operation of unarmed (or armed) aerial drones. As of now, the few successful BCI-controlled military robots have some degree of autonomy, therefore not relying solely on BCI, and have only worked for short distances. Challenges in engineering that have kept the military in these early stages include the slowness and uncertainty of non-invasive BCI methods, the high levels of cognitive activity required from the user, and delays in BCI communication at longer distances.
Robotic augmentation deals with the use of robotic suits or “exoskeletons” to enhance human strength and endurance. For example, one model known as the XOS2 robotic suit, is at the point that it is ready for deployment. It has the power to enable the human user to lift 200 pounds and punch through three inches of wood. Not only is the model immensely powerful, but it is responsive and agile as well. However, these robotic suits are only operational in terms of controls, so research is now being done on how to make these suits controllable via BCI. However, this is an immensely difficult technological task, and it may be awhile until we see the development of such a device.
BCI in Rehabilitation of Injured Soldiers:
BCI isn’t just used to improve combat operations; it can also have medical applications for soldiers injured during combat. More specifically, BCI can be used to make functional prosthetics for soldiers who have lost their limbs, such as their hand, arm, or fingers. There are two types of prosthetics using BCI: motor prosthetics and communication prosthetics. Motor prosthetics include a multi-jointed robotic arm with a range of grip strengths that can perform complex, three-dimensional movements. The BCI continuously processes a person’s cortical signals in order to guide the type and speed of movement of the prosthetic limb. On the other hand, while a communication prosthetic does similarly continuously process a person’s electrical signals, it does so from their higher cortical areas, which allows for the execution of more complicated, goal-oriented tasks. However, communication prosthetics often rely on the more efficient signal processing that is only made possible through invasive BCI techniques. Thus, there are many ethical concerns about informed consent and other risks. For example, the military physician must take into account the soldier’s understanding of the risks and benefits (especially considering that such functional prosthetics are regarded as experimental therapy in the military rather than medical treatment with confirmed benefits) and any psychiatric issues, such as PTSD, that may impact their decision making.
Clearly, the military offers a clear example of the many applications of BCI, and some of the major ethical issues that come along with that. In addition to the ethical concerns brought up in this post, what about cognitive liberty, and the issue of reversibility? In other words, a person should be entitled to their own thoughts and privacy. Likewise, should these technologies be made reversible to prevent misuse and the permanency of consequences from technological failure? These are tough decisions to incorporate due to the fast-pace progression of the neurotechnology industry, but we should always remember that with great power comes great responsibility.
Kotchetkov, Ivan S., et al. “Brain-Computer Interfaces: Military, Neurosurgical, and Ethical Perspective.” Neurosurgical Focus, 2010, doi:10.3171/2010.2.focus1027.