Researchers at California Polytechnic State University warn that the U.S. military is working to create and implement technologies that will give soldiers “mutant powers” without fully thinking through the consequences. According to Wired magazine’s “Danger Room” blog, the scientists warn that if the military fails to prepare properly, these advancements, including enhanced strength and endurance, superior cognition and a lack of fear, the technology could do more harm than good.
Patrick Lin and his colleagues Maxwell Mehlman and Keith Abney have produced a report for the Greenwall Foundation (.pdf), a foundation dedicated to rewarding excellence in the arts and humanities as well as in the growing field of bioethics. The report, “Enhanced Fighters: Risk, Ethics and Policy” warns that “military human enhancements” could pose a decided risk to enlisted personnel. The means used to produce the enhancements, including drugs, special nutrition, electroshock, gene therapy and robotic implants, are all only dimly understood. The consequences of utilizing these techniques with anything but exquisite care could be devastating.
“With military enhancements and other technologies, the genie’s already out of the bottle: the benefits are too irresistible, and the military-industrial complex still has too much momentum,” wrote Lin in an email to Wired. “The best we can do now is to help develop policies in advance to prepare for these new technologies, not post hoc or after the fact (as we’re seeing with drones and cyberweapons).”
Unintended consequences of “mutant fighter” technology, the report said, could include maimed and killed soldiers from technologies gone awry, spurring costly lawsuits. Tweaked and modified soldiers could be found in violation of international law, spawning a fresh international crisis every time U.S. troops are deployed. Worse, the new technologies could kick off a frantic arms race between the U.S. and its enemies.
Lin pointed to the case of U.S. Air Force F-16 pilot, Maj. Harry Schmidt, who was returning from a 10-hour mission over Afghanistan when he saw flashes on the ground below him indicating weapons fire. Thinking that friendly troops on the ground were under fire by insurgents, Schmidt unloaded a 500-pound laser-guided bomb on the area from where the weapons fire was originating.
There were no insurgents on the ground, however, only Canadian troops on a live-fire training exercise. Four soldiers were killed in the incident.
Schmidt, who was stripped of his pilot’s wings by the Air Force, blamed the drug Dexedrine, an amphetamine routine prescribed by the Air Force for fighter pilots flying long missions. Post-amphetamine jitters can cause irritability, poor judgment and can impair decision making.
This information, said Schmidt, had been witheld from him.
This incident underscores the risks of using artificial means to push soldiers beyond their natural limits. The “Danger Room” article raised the question of whether the military is ready for the consequences of “a future battlefield teeming with amphetamine-fueled pilots, a cyborg infantry and commanders whose brains have been shocked into achieving otherwise impossible levels of tactical cunning.”
If one side in a conflict were to deploy what the article called a “terrifying cyborg army,” what type of arms race could this potentially kick off between warring powers? What international rules of conduct would govern what can be done to soldiers in the name of national defense?
In the 1970s, the Pentagon gave soldiers the hallucinogen LSD in hopes of developing hallucinogenic weapons. During the Cold War, the U.S. military exposed troops to nerve gas, radiation and other toxins without their consent in the name of determining the effects on battle readiness. Lin and the other report authors warn that soldiers should be given the option to opt out of enhancements and other experiments that may have unintended consequences.
“Should warfighters be required to give their informed consent to being enhanced, and if so, what should that process be?” the report asks.
The research group suggests a set of guidelines for the military as it tests and explores the frontier of military human enhancement. Is there a legitimate military purpose for the enhancement? Furthermore, “Is it necessary? Do the benefits outweigh the risks? Can subjects’ dignity be maintained and the cost to them minimized? Is there full, informed consent, transparency and are the costs of the enhancement fairly distributed? Finally, are systems in place to hold accountable those overseeing the enhancement?”
Lin, Mehlman and Abney warn that the time to think about the ethical ramifications of human enhancement is now, not when problems have arisen.
“In comic books and science fiction, we can suspend disbelief about the details associated with fantastical technologies and abilities, as represented by human enhancements,” the report warns. “But in the real world — as life imitates art, and ‘mutant powers’ really are changing the world — the details matter and will require real investigations.”
David Ferguson is an editor at Raw Story. He was previously writer and radio producer in Athens, Georgia, hosting two shows for Georgia Public Broadcasting and blogging at Firedoglake.com and elsewhere. He is currently working on a book.
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