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The Rise and Decline of Military Human Enhancement

Super Soldier SOURCE: Amalgam Comics Amalgam Comics' Super Soldier. The Pentagon has invested billions in researching ways to improve soldier performance.

In the past decade, the U.S. military’s interest in human enhancement technologies has waxed and waned. An initial surge of interest, fueled by a desire to create the “Future Force Warrior” has given way, over time, to the more mundane challenges of meeting the needs of soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq. We would be fooling ourselves, however, if we believed that the U.S. military had abandoned efforts to upgrade the soldier’s body and mind to match the pace of modern warfare. We are in, at best, a lull in military investments in human enhancement research. That is why now is good time to start asking hard questions about how—and indeed if—we should proceed along this course.

In 2002, Dr Joseph Bielitzki, chair of DARPA’s Defense Sciences Office, announced a grand program to improve soldiers, with the slogan “Be all that you can be, and a lot more.” His targets: sleep, fatigue, pain, and blood loss. Other projects studied psychological stress, memory, and learning.  The next year, the Army launched the multibillion dollar Future Combat System to transform the military into a fast and flexible force of networked sensors, combat vehicles, and wired soldiers. The words on everybody’s lips were “human enhancement,” the use of science and technology to upgrade the human body and mind. Advances in the life sciences would make soldiers more than human, while computers, digital sensors, and smart communication systems would replace the rigid military hierarchy. According to military futurists, the then-new War on Terror required a new type of soldier, independent, fast and more lethal than ever before.

But in Iraq and Afghanistan, the military discovered that elite special forces alone could not restore stability to war-torn countries. General Petraeus’s counter-insurgency strategy relies on building relationships with local partners and requires soldiers with diplomatic skills, not combat enhancements.  Approximately $4 billion in annual research funding was shifted away from blue-sky projects to better reconnaissance drones and defenses against roadside bombs, the insurgent’s weapon of choice. And in combat, hard lessons were relearned: War is random, and a super-soldier is just as dead as anyone else if his Humvee rolls over an IED.

Meanwhile, the conservative Bush-era President’s Council on Bioethics, wrote on military human enhancement, “This particular case, in short, is the exception that proves the rule: Even in moments of great crisis, when superior performance is most necessary, we must never lose sight of the human agency that gives superior performance its dignity.”  Outflanked on public relations, and with articles about Frankenstein super-soldiers filtering out into the media and the armed forces, DARPA went into damage control mode, trying to spin their research in less controversial directions. In an interview with Wired Magazine, DARPA director Tony Tether said “There’s probably more hype on [Human Enhancement]. You know the old Army saying, “Be all you can be”? That’s really what we’re doing. We’re making it possible for people to be all that they can be, not making them be better than they can be.” Ordinary soldiers, the intended targets of these new inventions, had no desire to become cyborg supermen. The warrior tradition was based on the superiority of human courage and fitness, and turning the body, the last bastion of individual autonomy in the military, into yet another piece of equipment, was deeply disturbing.

By 2008, the focus at DARPA was no longer human enhancement, it was performance optimization. Metabolic dominance research focused on re-engineering mitochondria, the body’s power plant, became Peak Soldier Performance, an investigation into over-the-counter nutritional supplements.  Augmented cognition/improving warfighter information intake under stress, a helmet and vest that monitored the brains of soldiers and processed that data to help them navigate the battlefield and communicate under fire, performed well in trials, and was quietly shelved. The Future Combat System was canceled by Secretary Gates in 2009 at a cost of millions, although individual projects, like a wearable computer for infantry, continue to be funded under new names. A few projects in the life sciences found success. Techniques for surviving massive blood loss and regrowing damaged lungs have been shown to work in animal trials, and Revolutionizing Prosthetics, a robotic artificial limb that links into the nervous system to behave and feel like a normal limb, is undergoing clinical trials at Johns Hopkins.

The turn against human enhancement can also be seen through the lens of the Army Science Conference. Dr John Parmentola, director for Army Research and Laboratory Management, gave the keynote address at the 26th ASC in 2008, and at an American Association for the Advancement of Science conference described his work on virtual reality for training and treating PTSD as “human enhancement”. The 27th Army Science Conference held in Orlando, Florida, at the end of November was packed with presentations on human performance and biomedical technologies, but the words “human enhancement” were nowhere to be found.

It might be tempting to assume from all of this that military human enhancement is dead; in all likelihood, it’s merely sleeping. While the rhetorical shift from enhancement to optimization was accompanied by a drawback in the ambition of this research, there is no clear line between enhancement and optimization, and much of the basic science remained the same. With the military entering a period of cutbacks, there will be an urge to do more with less, to turn to technology to solve human problems. Science is iterative, each result builds on the ones that come before, and the seeds planted by Dr Bielitzki are beginning to yield fruit. Compare with computers: the first generation were specialist military tools for code breaking and plotting ballistic tables, the second generation drove an economic revolution, the third generation is an omnipresent fact of life. Funding for these enhancement technologies in neuroscience, biomedicine, and cybernetics continues, albeit at a reduced level.

Wars are fought and won by human beings, and although soldiers are better trained, equipped, and supported than ever before, they are not all that different from what they were fifty years ago, or one hundred, or one thousand. But this may be true for only a little longer. Now is the time for policymakers to discuss military human enhancement, to ask important questions about how technologies and soldiers should be integrated. What kinds of military human enhancement should we pursue? Are there some we should not? Is human enhancement ethical, especially in the context of military authority over soldiers’ choices? Does it align with our democratic values? Is human enhancement an effective path to ensuring America’s national security? Assuming that we decide military human enhancement is ethical and proper, how will we control the flow of military technology to the civilian world? How can we talk about military human enhancement in a way that avoids both hype and fear-mongering?

These decisions are too important to be left to soldiers, scientists, and defense contractors. Human enhancement has the potential to transform every aspect of society.  A change in phraseology from enhancement to optimization does not imply real change in the results of military research, or its potential consequences for liberty, democracy, and national security. It was precipitous for the military to take the lead on this issue without democratic consent, but we now have an opportunity to consider our values, our desired outcomes, and the means to achieve them as they relate to human enhancement. Let’s not waste it.

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