February 7, 2012
Experts Say Advances In Neuroscience May Affect Future Of Warfare
As is the fate of nearly all scientific and technological advances, military experts are already prowling for ways to convert recent advances in neuroscience into advantages on the battlefield. And with the science of the brain progressing by leaps and bounds in recent years, ideas for new military technology are already being tossed around that would have been written off as science fiction just a few years ago.
In a report published in the UK on Tuesday, a panel of scientists, international security experts, psychologists and ethics advisors wrote about the future role that neuroscience will likely play in warfare.
The group believes that the newfound ability to accurately map brain activity and control cognitive responses with stimulants could radically alter the nature of warfare, and their report was intended to highlight this potential for scientists currently working in the field.
Writing on behalf of the panel, lead researcher Rod Flower stated: “We know neuroscience research has the potential to deliver great social benefit - researchers come closer every day to finding effective treatments for diseases and disorders such as Parkinson´s, depression, schizophrenia, epilepsy and addiction.”
“However, understanding of the brain and human behavior, coupled with developments in drug delivery, also highlight ways of degrading human performance that could possibly be used in new weapons,” added the professor of biochemical pharmacology at Queen Mary University in London.
The report breaks down the future role of brain science in military technology into two main subdivisions: the ability to the enhance performance of one´s own military forces, and the ability to reduce or break down the efficacy of the enemy´s forces.
On the side of performance enhancement, the panel pointed to potential interfaces between the brain and hardware that could allow various machines of war, such as tanks and aircraft, to be controlled directly by the human mind.
Oxford University´s Irene Tracey, one of the world´s leading experts in brain imaging and co-author of the report, noted that research on neural interface technology is still in its nascent stages and is currently being developed principally for its potential to create sophisticated prosthetic limbs.
“You can imagine how you can be used for the military - both for rehabilitation of soldiers and for control of remote devices,” Tracey told Reuters at a press conference in London.
She added that while much of the technology may seem like sheer fantasy at the moment, the “alarmingly quick” evolution of modern technology has a way of turning fantasy into reality, and researchers need to be aware of the implications of their work.
The report also highlighted the fact that new advances in neuroimaging will likely make it possible for military organizations to screen and sort their recruits according to specific mental abilities and attributes in the future.
And the panel also pointed to current research into the effects of various drugs for enhancing cognitive function in soldiers, some of which are already in use.
Professor Flower highlighted one aspect of the ethical complexity associated with this technology by pointing to the example of a drone aircraft that could be controlled by thought alone.
“This idea brings about a bit of a blur in the distinction between mind and machine, which obviously has to be addressed very carefully.”
“If we got to the point where we could control a sophisticated machine, and the machine did something [“¦] like committing a war crime of some sort, who would be responsible for that, you or the machine?”
And Flower´s ethical concerns didn´t stop there. Speaking directly to one of the moral and economic quandaries that lies at the heart of all war and military spending, he pointed out that pursuing these technologies for the purposes of warfare will likely distract researchers and channel resources away from the development of more humane uses.
“Support for this type of research is potentially diverting funding and resources away from other important social applications such as the treatment of neurological impairment, disease and psychiatric illness. This is why it should be subject to ethical review and as transparent as possible.”
“The neuroscientists conducting this research also need to be aware that knowledge and technologies used for beneficial purposes can also be misused for harmful purposes.”
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