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.

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Presented by

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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