Following a spate of reports and public announcements over the summer of 2019 it appears the potential for a bio-tech revolution is fast approaching. The promised revolution offers the potential to radically alter the relationship between human and technology, with technology increasingly a part of, rather than merely on, the person. Although much of the technology is nascent, the implications of making what was once the preserve of science fiction a reality warrants military consideration of bio-technology and human performance enhancement. In this short piece I sketch out the field of performance enhancement technologies, the next evolution in the character of conflict, and the first steps that a military might take in considering and possibly harnessing performance enhancement. I will briefly touch on some of the ethical issues, but a fuller discussion is beyond the scope of this paper.
Elon Musk, Google and other leading figures in the tech world are making headlines with their aspirations. The sector has also benefitted from an increasing flow of venture funding into the sector. One piece of analysis suggests a threefold increase in global funding for biomedical projects over a period of 5 years. This leap, to nearly $17bn dollars a year in 2018, excluded related subsectors. In the US, DARPA has a declared $101m budget for biotech for 2019 that look to harness advances in therapeutic treatment for the wounded. This global investment in biotech is supporting a variety of developments. Some seek to improve levels of human motor or neural functioning that might have been affected by illness or accident; others are enabling performance that allows performance beyond the normal range. From therapy it is a simple technological step towards enhancement of the healthy. ‘Basic’ enhancement can already be achieved today through pharmacology. Currently available pharmacology allows users to better focus on tasks, benefit from greater strength, or maintain alertness for increased periods of time. These enhancements make use of medication designed to combat a diverse range of illnesses and disorders, such as narcolepsy or ADHD, as well as currently proscribed drugs.
Upgrading the ‘wetware’ to keep pace with the hardware is a central rationale for Musk’s Neuralink and ‘the next chapter of us’. The emergence of terms such as ‘wetware’ marries together the language of the computer age with the functioning of the human body. This linguistic trajectory can also be found in Yuval Harari’s Homo Deus and the depiction of death as a result of ‘technical glitches’ within a system of bodily algorithms. Language choices may presage the next evolution in the character of conflict. Antoine Bousquet has argued that Western ways of war have followed a path shaped by the dominant scientific field of the day. For him, today marks an era of ‘chaoplexity’, characterised by its consideration of network structures and decentralisation. A case could be made that these ideas are reflected in British Army discussions on the Conceptual Force (Land) 2035 or the Royal Marines’ Future Commando Force. If Bousquet is right, it is feasible that the next change to ways of war will reflect a shift towards the language, and use, of biotechnology.
The case for Defence
The leap in investment, evident government interest around the globe and the emerging findings of early adopters should be enough to warrant the attention of Defence. Embracing developments in enhancement technology offers visions of increased operational effectiveness, enhanced survivability and the advent of ‘super-soldiers’. A rationale for ‘super-soldiers’ seems clear: the physical, and especially cognitive, demands of warfare are only likely to increase, as sensors provide a continual growth of data, and maintaining high tempo fractures the organic battle rhythm of previous wars. In the past human frailty dictated when and for how long a soldier could fight before resting. This seems a luxury that may not be afforded to the next generation. Without enhancement, including the basic gains offered by pharmacology, there is a real prospect that the human will become the weakest link in the Defence system.
Until now, thoughts about how people provide the edge have focussed on the softer development of the soldier: education, leadership, mental resilience are routinely discussed. Harder, technological, physiological and pharmacological development of the soldier now needs to be considered, and potentially employed. This requires organisational coherence to ensure that developments in one area complement advances elsewhere. For instance, combining reform to educational practices with transcranial stimulation could lead to far greater cognitive performance than either would provide by itself. An authoritative organisational voice can also begin to contribute to the wider public discussion on the future of biotechnology and attempts to control its employment and consequences. The prospect of performance enhancement and its military applications typifies David Collingridge’s dilemma. Society could simply wait to see what technology delivers and then attempt to regulate, at the risk of loss of control. Alternatively, and a position that I advocate, society could seek to influence the development of technology to shape its consequences.
Could vs should
One of the challenges in employing enhancement technologies is likely to be societal concerns. The recent Royal Society report on neural enhancement found that the public were unsure of the military application of enhancement technologies. Many of their concerns echoed fears that have been previously raised in relation to remote and autonomous systems and the de-risking of war for one side. Performance enhancement also brings about deeper fears about human nature. Rather than merely equipping the soldier, technology begins to merge the distinction between soldier and equipment and the future establishment of a class of trans-human soldiers. Inevitably, minds race to a dystopian future such as that found in Hollywood films and science fiction novels. Universal Soldier or Marvel’s super soldier serum are typical of visions of a trans-human military future. Such a future is unlikely; legislation, ethics and societal norms would preclude some of the darkest visions of genetically modified ‘super-soldiers’, at least in Britain – other States may not be so discerning. The 2018 CRISPR twins illustrate what might be achievable. But other concerns, for instance about individual autonomy, privacy, and consent, are more pressing. Into the mix, the permanency of enhancement should be added. Even if an enhancement were temporary, it is likely, particularly if affecting the brain, that there would be a lasting change to the recipient. Concerns about a divide between the enhanced and the un-enhanced are understandable. Military personnel re-entering the civilian workplace are at risk of being seen as the ‘other’ by those who have not been enhanced.
To avoid the concerns that have been raised, the military needs to demonstrate that not only can it enhance but that it should. Justifications could include a moral duty to improve the survivability of the soldier, securing military advantage or needing to keep up with Allies. Enhancements could improve situational awareness. A separate post will consider these in detail.
Answering this latter question requires contributions from medical practitioners, technologists, ethicists and operators. In this regards, the Future Land Action Seminar discussions represent a notable step forward but the military ought not to limit itself to considering pharmacology alone. What may now seem distant technology can rapidly become real. The idea that the Army would routinely access work via smartphones seemed a distant prospect at the start of the current decade. Discussing human performance enhancement requires the consideration of the full potential of the field and not simply focussing on the immediate solution. The Australian approach offers a model that it would be worthwhile considering for the British Army. Across the various parts of Army HQ and the Field Army there are specialists who can provide the input to such an approach. Focussing on the opportunities for enhancement that are available today, and likely to enter the market in the next 10-15 years, will enable the military to understand how people might truly provide the next edge in capability and assuage fears amongst the wider population. Multi-disciplinary, longitudinal work considering everything from psychology through physiology, pharmacology and onto technology, requires structures that can co-ordinate, direct and harness effort from across the community. There are many studies that demonstrate the potential for performance improvement. The military would benefit from taking these starting points and initiating further field experiments. More importantly though is a shift towards thinking about soldiers as a system. If soldiers are ‘warrior athletes’ then a less agricultural approach than currently exists is needed. Hoping to control the consequences and harness the benefit once technology has matured seems ill-fated. It is preferable to start the discussion and education now and put in place structures that enable the military to benefit from enhancement technology in an ethical manner.