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Automation and Technology Opinion Short Read

Faster, Stronger, Quicker, Decisive = Better Soldiers: The Case For Performance Enhancement

Experimental Feature: Audio Read Version

With an increasing likelihood of technological parity in traditional military technology, militaries are identifying new ways of operating.  Hence the interest in information advantage or the application of artificial intelligence.  The science and technology that allows transhumanists to contemplate the next evolution for humanity offers a new way of thinking about the soldier.  No longer might the soldier simply be equipped with the latest bit of technology.  Technology could well be in the soldier rather than simply on the soldier.  I have briefly discussed some forms of intervention, and some of the challenging questions they raise, in previous posts.

Embracing this idea presents significant implications for the individual, the organisation and broader society.  Technology may enable enhancement but that is not enough.  Clearly argued and justified explanations for enhancement are fundamental to reassuring society and personnel of the intentions of the military.  Crucially these justifications ought to sit comfortably with the broader values and laws in which a military operates.  This post examines several justifications for enhancement.

It is entirely possible that society changes and enhancement becomes the norm.  Lukasz KamienskI, Nicolas Rasmussen and James Pugh have provided insights into how militaries have used drugs to enhance performance.  Today, a growing community of biohackers and neurohackers explore the potential of science and technology to change the way they live.  Many of their experiments are a world away from clinical laboratory settings.  It is possible that this activity could become much more widely accepted.  Such societal change may lessen reticence about military use.  Until then, militaries will need to justify to their populations the rationale for enhancement.

What is enhancement?

Differentiating enhancement from optimisation or rehabilitation is notoriously difficult.  Enhancements can capture a wide range of devices and techniques.  Few would regard spectacles in the same light as genetic engineering.  Their use might share the same basic goal of improving vision but the impact of these two approaches is rather different.  Spectacles can only correct poor vision; genetic engineering could, in theory, enable humans vision to operate differently.  The impact of an intervention may offer the simplest way of separating the terms.  Enhancement takes an individual beyond the normal range, optimisation allows an individual to attain their full natural potential and therapy restores an individual to their natural baseline.

The categorisation is not faultless.  The normal range for any human attribute, as the IQ range shows, can be very wide.  The performance gap between those at the ends can be incredibly vast.  An intervention may restore an individual to levels beyond the normal range of others.  Equally, an intervention might enhance someone’s performance beyond his or her natural abilities but within the normal human range.

Enhancement methods and techniques could include: genetic enhancements; human-machine applications; pharmaceuticals; and nutrition.  Such methods could affect physical, cognitive and moral performance levels and other performance attributes.  It might be tempting at this point to draw a comparison with sport and the use of enhancements.  After all the sporting community has a long history of using enhancements.  Militaries often seek out asymmetry rather than preserving the levels of equality and fairness often thought important for sport.  But even in searching for advantage care has often been taken to fight within a set of agreed rules, whether it be in warrior traditions or more recent codes of law.  These rules have often been about preventing unwarranted harm rather than making sure that everyone fought the same.  Whilst militaries can learn from sport they ought to be cautious of adopting too much of sport’s attitudes towards fairness and equality.

Why consider enhancement?

A number of reasons might justify the enhancement of personnel beyond the normal range of human performance.  Convincing both personnel and societies that enhancement is a necessary feature of modern soldiering requires justification.  The justification, I suggest, needs to be particularly compelling when the military looks to move away from currently accepted norms of the society it represents.

Everyone else is doing it.  Access to enhancements is global.  As Allen Buchanan has noted it is an ‘undeniable fact that [enhancement is coming]…the task is to start thinking hard about practical responses.’  There is evidence of Daesh using pharmacology to enhance their fighters and CRISPR/ Cas 9 gene editing is increasingly accessible.  Following the footsteps of competitors might mean committing to a biotech arms race akin to that seen in the Cold War.  Equally there may be a sense that refusal to follow competitors would leave a state at a disadvantage.  Such thinking seems to have influenced British decisions on amphetamine use in the Second World War.  However, states have not always mimicked the actions of their adversaries.  Refusing to follow suit could provide a moral high ground.  Refusing to employ but continuing to study enhancements might also provide opportunity to shape the wider discussion.  This might take the form of international commitments or an awareness of how to negate the advantages provided by performance enhancements.

Enhancement though is not limited to adversaries.  With Western militaries increasingly operating in multinational formations, an ally that does enhance its personnel could easily outstrip the performance levels of its unenhanced allies.  It is clear that some in the US foresee a future in which the unenhanced soldier will be as a horse in the age of mechanisation.  National caveats on the employment of personnel have previously generated friction amongst allies.  This friction might grow larger when states are simply unable to keep up.  Remaining interoperable might remove a government’s luxury of choice

For NATO members, the use of enhancements will certainly require discussion and agreement on standardisation.  NATO has previously discussed this subject, but that was 11 years ago and technology has moved on.  Soldier enhancement though is just one of a plethora of subjects that NATO needs to grapple with and one that is unlikely to be central for the moment.  This suggests that member states are likely to pursue enhancement either on their own terms or as part of discrete groups within the organisation.  And if this is the case within NATO, then it begs the question as to the likelihood of establishing international consensus.  The ability and willingness of states to agree on the consequences of enhancements and impose restrictions is debatable.

Gain an advantage.  The technological gap that the USA and other states have relied on previously is narrowing.  Arguably, many of the capability developments now are delivering ‘incremental improvements of diminishing margins’.  Nor, despite the investment in autonomous and robotic systems, does it appear that the individual soldier will be departing the battlefield any time soon.  Whilst humans remain a part of the fighting force, anything that can make them more effective begins to make sense.  This becomes ever more necessary while humans remain in the loop of autonomous weapons.  The effectiveness of those systems is constrained by how quickly humans can make decisions.  And military service already places significant demands on the brain and body.  As such, there is significant merit in updating the soldier to gain an advantage.  Advantages can be found in enabling soldiers to operate for longer, carry more or simply complete more training.

Ryan Tonken articulates the challenge for the military.  He argues ‘chang[ing] anything substantial about human beings so that they can be more effective …is deeply unsettling.’  It might also be necessary to ask what level of advantage justifies enhancement.  A great advantage might provide a reassuringly clear marker, but the outcome of actions can pivot on the most miniscule of advantages.  The most appropriate response from the military is to demonstrate that the advantage supports a legitimate military action.

Improve protection and survivability.  Many states will feel the need to minimise the level of risk that soldiers are exposed to.  Maintaining acceptable levels of risk generates clear reasons for enhancement.  Modern soldiers wear an array of equipment to protect them.  Enhancements could well fall into the same category.  This is especially the case for enhancements that can maintain alertness or alter the body’s normal response to wounding.  Against an enhanced opponent, not providing enhancements could well represent a dereliction of responsibility.  Deciding not to enhance could prove more damaging to a military in terms of operational effectiveness and reputation than a decision to enhance.

Enhancements could result in altering the levels of protection afforded to third parties.  Enhancing a soldier’s ability for moral decision making could make conflict safer for others.  Preventing, for example, the occurrence of PTSD with a pill sounds worthy but freeing someone from an emotional connection to their actions could impose costs on the individual and others.  This returns the debate to a question I asked in my previous post; if war becomes less painful does it simply become too easy?  To that we ought to ask if society will care when the enhanced go to war?

Improve judgment and decision-making.  Enhancement might enable soldiers to make better-judged decisions.  Studies have shown that the quality of judgements degrades under pressure and stress.  An enhancement that was able to reduce stress would provide opportunity for clearer analysis of the situation.  In turn, less harm might occur to both soldier and civilian.  Equally, enhancements could be administered that allow personnel to make more empathic decisions. However, there is a concern that improved cognition could allow personnel to make decisions that are more destructive.  Bereft of emotion or focussed solely on mission objectives could lead to personnel ignoring other factors.  These concerns explain the calls for moral enhancement by some writers.

This last concern ought to remind the reader that militaries cannot solely consider the performance benefits that might accrue from enhancement.  The broader ethical, value and legal codes that surround a military will all play a part in bounding how far to enhance.  Both Britain and Germany in the Second World War took active steps to control the use of amphetamines.  They were concerned about the impact on personnel and wider society.  A bold assumption is that states that demand respect for international rules would be unlikely to deliberately seek their abandonment.  Such an assumption is admittedly under increasing pressure.  But condemnation from within the military and external pressure can still have an effect on decision makers.  Thus, enhancements that blatantly contradict existing international norms are unlikely to be taken.  However, there are other enhancements that might push at the existing boundaries of what is considered acceptable.

It’s good to talk

One might wish for international consensus and regulation.  But I fear such agreement is some way off.  In its absence, military personnel and societies ought, for now, to discuss and agree on where limits should be placed at both the unilateral and multilateral levels with allied states.  Articulating the justifications for enhancement is an essential part of this.  Human enhancement is particularly emotive; fears are exacerbated when the military is found to be considering options.  Keeping the discussion secret though favours no one.  As Jonathan D. Moreno has argued accountability is best served by preserving the openness of the discussion and the continued engagement of the scientific community and the broader public.  There needs to be debate about the extent to which contemporary soldiering requires enhancement.  This needs to be conducted in measured, informed tones and not in the febrile atmosphere of moral panic.  It requires militaries to weigh performance advantage against a broad set of risks to the soldier, the institution and broader society.

Gareth W

Gareth W is a British Army officer. In his 17th year of service, he is now involved in the development of future leaders.

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