Tuesday, Feb 3, 2009
Pharmaceutical products could be employed to boost the performance of one army’s soldiers while undermining the minds of those on the other, according to a National Research Council report drafted for the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency.
The report, “Emerging Cognitive Neuroscience and Related Technologies,” addresses the question of how emerging neuroscience technologies and an increased understanding of the mind’s functioning will affect police and the military.
“It’s way too early to know which – if any – of these technologies is going to be practical,” study co-author Jonathan Moreno said. “But it’s important for us to get ahead of the curve.”
The use of drugs to enhance or undermine battlefield performance features prominently in the report. While the narcolepsy drug modafinil and the attention deficit disorder drug Ritalin are already thought to be widely used by U.S. soldiers trying to stave off combat fatigue, the report says that more powerful and precisely targeted alertness drugs developed in the coming years will be even more effective. Drugs could also be used to enhance physical performance, such as by increasing physical strength or decreasing the perception of pain.
On the flip side, drugs might be used to attack the minds of opposing troops. “Drugs can be utilized to achieve abnormal, diseased, or disordered psychology,” the report says.
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“How can we disrupt the enemy’s motivation to fight? Is there a way to make the enemy obey our commands?”
One method for utilizing such drugs, the authors suggested, might be through the use of “pharmacological landmines,” which deploy weaponized drugs when disturbed.
It’s not only on the battlefield that the military is thinking about deploying drugs. Pharmaceutical products could be used to fool advanced surveillance techniques, the report suggests, such as by using Botox injections to relax the facial muscles of agents who might be monitored by advanced lie-detecting or motivation-reading computers.
Such computer and robotic technologies are themselves of great interest to the report. The authors express optimism about the development of new neuroimaging techniques that can actually scan the motivations, plans and memories of enemy soldiers or even civilians at security checkpoints. Such technologies might also produce a new generation of more accurate lie detectors.
Expressing hope for a way to force information out of interrogated detainees without the stigma of torture, the report says, “It is possible that some day there could be a technique developed to extract information from a prisoner that does not have any lasting side effects.”
One such method might involve transcranial direct current stimulation, which is the firing of electrical pulses into a detainee’s brain to disrupt their neurons and make it hard for them to lie.
Direct human-machine interfaces, or machines controlled directly by a human mind, could allow the deployment of weapons from a distance or even give a soldier entirely new ways of perceiving and processing information.
Blogging for wired.com, Brandon Keim raises questions about the ethics of such technologies.
“What happens when a soldier leaves the service?” he writes. “How might their brains be reshaped by their experience?”
Regarding the scanning of civilians with mind-reading technology, he asks, “Does this mean, for example, that travelers placed on the bloated, mistake-laden watchlist would have their minds scanned, just as their computers will be?”
Hugh Gusterson of George Mason University, a noted critic of military-sponsored social science research, said that ethical concerns will not hold the government back
“I think most reasonable people, if they imagine a world in which all sides have figured out how to control brains, they’d rather not go there,” he said “Most rational human beings would believe that if we could have a world where nobody does military neuroscience, we’ll all be better off. But for some people in the Pentagon, it’s too delicious to ignore.”