More Than Human? The Ethics of Biologically Enhancing Soldiers

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Our ability to "upgrade" the bodies of soldiers through drugs, implants, and exoskeletons may be upending the ethical norms of war as we've understood them.

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If we can engineer a soldier who can resist torture, would it still be wrong to torture this person with the usual methods? Starvation and sleep deprivation won't affect a super-soldier who doesn't need to sleep or eat. Beatings and electric shocks won't break someone who can't feel pain or fear like we do. This isn't a comic-book story, but plausible scenarios based on actual military projects today.

In the next generation, our warfighters may be able to eat grass,communicate telepathically,resist stress, climb walls like a lizard, and much more. Impossible? We only need to look at nature for proofs of concept. For instance, dolphins don't sleep (or they'd drown); Alaskan sled-dogs can run for days without rest or food; bats navigate with echolocation; and goats will eat pretty much anything. Find out how they work, and maybe we can replicate that in humans.

As you might expect, there are serious moral and legal risks to consider on this path. Last week in the UK, The Royal Society released its report " Neuroscience, Conflict and Security." This timely report worried about risks posed by cognitive enhancements to military personnel, as well as whether new nonlethal tactics, such as directed energy weapons, could violate either the Biological or Chemical Weapons Conventions.

While an excellent start, the report doesn't go far enough, as I have been explaining to the US intelligence community , National Research Council, DARPA, and other organizations internationally. The impact of neural and physical human enhancements is more far-reaching than that, such as to the question of torturing the enhanced. Other issues, as described below, pose real challenges to military policies and broader society.

Why Enhancements?

Technology makes up for our absurd frailty. Unlike other animals, we're not armed with fangs, claws, running speed, flight, venom, resilience, fur, or other helpful features to survive a savage world. We naked apes couldn't survive at all, if it weren't for our tool-making intellect and resourcefulness.

And therein lies a fundamental problem with how Homo sapiens wage war: As impressive as our weapon systems may be, one of the weakest links in armed conflicts-as well as one of the most valuable assets-continues to be the warfighters themselves. Hunger, fatigue, and the need for sleep can quickly drain troop morale and cause a mission to fail. Fear and confusion in the "fog of war" can lead to costly mistakes, such as friendly-fire casualties. Emotions and adrenaline can drive otherwise-decent individuals to perform vicious acts, from verbal abuse of local civilians to torture and illegal executions, making an international incident from a routine patrol. And post-traumatic stress can take a devastating toll on families and add pressure on already-burdened health services.

To be sure, military training seeks to address these problems, but it can do only so much, and science and technology help to fill those gaps. In this case, what's needed is an upgrade to the basic human condition. We want our warfighters to be made stronger, more aware, more durable, more maneuverable in different environments, and so on. The technologies that enable these abilities fall in the realm of human enhancement, and they include neuroscience, biotechnology, nanotechnology, robotics, artificial intelligence, and more.

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While some of these innovations are external devices, such as exoskeletons that give the wearer super-strength, our technology devices are continually shrinking in size. Our mobile phones today have more computing power than the Apollo rockets that blasted to the moon. So there's good reason to think that these external enhancements someday can be small enough to be integrated with the human body, for an even greater military advantage.

The use of human enhancement technologies by the military is not new. Broadly construed, vaccinations could count as an enhancement of the human immune system, and this would place the first instance of military human enhancement (as opposed to mere tool-use) at our very first war, the American Revolutionary War in 1775-1783. George Washington, as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, ordered the vaccinations of American troops against smallpox, as the British Army was suspected of using the virus as a form of biological warfare. (Biowarfare existed for centuries prior, such as in catapulting corpses to spread the plague during the Middle Ages.) At the time, the Americans largely were not exposed to smallpox in childhood and therefore had not built up immunity to the disease, as the British had.

Since then, militaries worldwide have used caffeine and amphetamines to keep their troops awake and alert, an age-old problem in war. In fact, some pilots are required to take drugs-known as "go pills"-on long-distance missions, or else lose their jobs. And there's ongoing interest in using pharmaceuticals, such as modafinil (a cognitive enhancer), dietary supplements, as well as gene therapy to boost the performance of warfighters.

The Questions

Some of the issues with military enhancements echo now-familiar debates, such as: whether the use of anabolic steroids by athletes is harmful to their health; whether that would set a bad example for impressionable children; whether Ritalin use in academia is cheating and unfair to others; whether longevity would bankrupt pension plans; whether manipulating biology amounts to " playing God"; and so on. But there are new concerns as well.

Ethical and safety issues

Established standards in biomedical ethics-such as the Nuremberg Code, the Declaration of Helsinki, and others-govern the research stage of enhancements, that is, experimentation on human subjects. But "military necessity" or the exigencies of war can justify actions that are otherwise impermissible, such as a requirement to obtain voluntary consent of a patient. Under what conditions, then, could a warfighter be commanded (or refuse) a risky or unproven enhancement, such as a vaccine against a new biological weapon? Because some enhancements could be risky or pose long-term health dangers, such as addiction to "go pills", should military enhancements be reversible? What are the safety considerations related to more permanent enhancements, such as bionic parts or a neural implant? 

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Tactical and logistical implications

Once ethical and safety issues are resolved, militaries will need to attend to the impact of human enhancements on their operations. For instance, how would integrating both enhanced and unenhanced warfighters into the same unit affect their cohesion? Would enhanced soldiers rush into riskier situations, when their normal counterparts would not? If so, one solution could be to confine enhancements to a small, elite force. (This could also solve the consent problem.) As both an investment in and potential benefit to the individual warfighters, is it reasonable to treat them differently from the unenhanced, such as on length of service and promotion requirements? On the other hand, preferential treatment to any particular group could lower overall troop morale.

Legal and policy issues

More broadly, how do enhancements impact international humanitarian law, or the laws of war? The Geneva and Hague Conventions prohibit torture of enemy combatants, but enhanced soldiers could reasonably be exempt if underlying assumptions disappear-that humans respond to a certain level of pain and need sleep and food-as I suggested at the beginning. Further, enhancements that transform our biology could violate the Biological Weapons Convention, if enhanced humans (or animals) plausibly count as "biological agents", which is not a well-defined term. International law aside, there may be policy questions: Should we allow scary enhancements, which was the point of fierce Viking helmets or samurai masks? Could that exacerbate hostilities by prompting charges of dishonor and cowardice, the same charges we're now hearing about military robots?

Military-civilian issues

As history shows, we can expect the proliferation of every military technology we invent. The method of diffusion is different and more direct with enhancements, though: Most warfighters return to society as civilians (our veterans) and would carry back any permanent enhancements and addictions with them. The US has about 23 million veterans-or one out of every 10 adults-in addition to 3 million active and reserve personnel, so this is a significant segment of the population. Would these enhancements, such as a drug or an operation that subdues emotions, create problems for the veteran to assimilate to civilian life? Would they create problems for other civilians who may be at a competitive disadvantage to the enhanced veteran who, for instance, has bionic limbs and enhanced cognition?

Soldier 2.0 is a Hybrid

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The military technology getting the most public attention now is robotics, but we can think of it as sharing the same goal as human enhancement. Robotics aims to create a super-soldier from an engineering approach: they are our proxy mech-warriors. However, there are some important limitations to those machines. For one thing, they don't have a sense of ethics-of what is right and wrong-which can be essential on the battlefield. Where it is child's play to identify a ball or coffee mug or a gun, it's notoriously tough for a computer to do that. This doesn't give us much confidence that a robot can reliably distinguish friend from foe, at least in the foreseeable future.

In contrast, cognitive and physical enhancements aim to create a super-soldier from a biomedical direction, such as with modafinil and other drugs. For battle, we want our soft organic bodies to perform more like machines. Somewhere in between robotics and biomedical research, we might arrive at the perfect future warfighter: one that is part machine and part human, striking a formidable balance between technology and our frailties.

In changing human biology, we also may be changing the assumptions behind existing laws of war and even human ethics. If so, we would need to reexamine the foundations of our social and political institutions, if prevailing norms can't stretch to cover new technologies. In comic books and science fiction , we can ignore or suspend disbelief about these details. But in the real world-as life imitates art, and "mutant powers" really are changing the world-the details matter.

Acknowledgements: This article is adapted from a research report, in progress, funded by The Greenwall Foundation, with co-investigators Maxwell Mehlman (Case Western Reserve University) and Keith Abney (Cal Poly).

Images: 1. US Marine Corps. 2. Lockheed Martin. 3. US Marine Corps. 4. US Marine Corps. Note: these images have been digitally enhanced.


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Patrick Lin is the director of the Ethics + Emerging Sciences Group at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo; a visiting associate professor at Stanford's School of Engineering; and an affiliate scholar at Stanford Law School. He is the lead editor of Robot Ethics and the co-author of What Is Nanotechnology and Why Does It Matter? and Enhanced Warfighters: Risk, Ethics, and Policy.

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