The U. S. government has long understood that its military, hyperpowerful as it is, is woefully inadequate for present and future conflicts. Hence, in recent years, the U. S. Department of Defense has sought a radical transformation of its armed forces, with the overall aim of having an agile and technology-driven army that is better prepared for multiple, simultaneous wars than is the cumbersome leviathan of today.
One of the goals of this transformation is an army equipped for what the Defense Department calls ‘network-centric’ warfare. In the battlefield of the future, cognitively and physically enhanced super soldiers will act as interactive ‘nodes’ in the battlefield. They will be equipped with neural implants which enable the highly efficient gathering of information about their surroundings, and instant transmission of the data to a central command post. The soldiers will wear morphing battlesuits which contain biosensors that detect injuries, administer drugs as and when they are needed, and even, if necessary, perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation.
This vision of the futuristic army rests in large part on the application of anticipated advances in neuro- science and nanotechnology. Jonathan Moreno‘s Mind Wars deals with the ethical implications of applying neurotechnologies on the battlefield. As the director of the Center for Biomedical Ethics at the University of Virginia, Moreno is well qualified to write about the topic. He has also had personal experience of some of the issues discussed in the book: his father was a pioneering psychiatrist who pioneered the use of LSD to treat mental illness, and, as a young woman, his mother lost her hearing in one ear and had an arm amputated, making her a potential recipient of a cochlear implant and prosthetic limb.
The U.S. government has, since World War II, been keenly aware of the importance of scientific research in staying ahead of other players on the global stage. National Security Council document NSC-68, published in 1950, set out the geopolitical strategy which is still being pursued by the U. S. today. The document states that “it is mandatory that in building up our strength, we enlarge upon our technical superiority by an accelerated exploitation of the scientific potential of the United States and our allies.” Currently, the U. S. government provides academia with several billion dollars of funding every year. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology alone receives about $500 million annually – more than any other academic institution.
Mind Wars begins with a history of America’s military-academic complex in the last 60 years. A particularly interesting aspect of the book is the hitherto ‘hidden history’ of military funding of research in the behavioural sciences during the Cold War years. For example, Timothy Leary’s interest in LSD was inherited from senior Harvard professors whose work was funded by the defence establishment. In fact, the majority of psychological research carried out during the mid-20th century was funded by the military. Often, the researchers were unaware that their work was being funded by the military, and were therefore completely oblivious to how their findings might be applied. The military has, in the past, funded research into parapsychological phenomena, but this may have been a ploy designed to send “the other side” down a blind alley where valuable time and resources would be wasted.
In a book called A Question of Torture, published last year, Alfred McCoy, a historian at the university of Wisconsin, claims that Stanley Milgram’s infamous “shock” experiments were funded by the CIA. The claims are, apparently, unsubstantiated, but it would come as no surprise if Milgram’s work was funded by the military, as this type of research was, and still is, very pertinent. The Bush administration considers psychological operations (psy-ops) to be essential to the conflicts being fought today, and is undoubtedly very interested in research that may shed light on how people react during interrogation, and on their susceptibility to political campaigning and the use of propaganda. The legacy of military-funded behavioural research can be seen in the systematic abuse and humiliation inflicted by U. S. officials upon Iraqi detainees in Abu Ghraib.
Moreno provides very basic details of the neurobiological bases of the technologies discussed in the book. The structure and function of the brain, for example, are whittled down to about two pages, and the mind-brain conundrum is likewise given short shrift. The technologies discussed in Mind Wars include neuroimaging, brain-machine interfaces, augmented cognition, and drugs for enhancing cognitive functions and physical performance. Many of these technologies have “dual use” – that is, they have both military and civilian applications – and this may be something that justifies continuing research and development.
Moreno says that he encountered “reluctance to discuss the social and ethical issues” when approaching researchers involved in projects related to national defence – in fact, he “quickly ran into a wall”. This is not necessarily because the information is particularly sensitive – much of the work carried out by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), is unclassified and documents relating to it are available in the public domain; it may reflect the uncertainties about much of the work, and disagreements between the researchers themselves about how successfully some of the technologies can be put to use. For example, the efficacy of functional magnetic resonance imaging in determining if someone is telling the truth or not is still hotly debated by neuroscientists.
“Regulating the introduction of devices spun off from neuroscience”, writes Moreno, “is going to be one of the big social policy challenges of this century. With military and intelligence needs on the cutting edge of these developments, the policy challenges are going to be still more daunting.” Moreno is also concerned with issues pertaining to civil and cognitive liberties that will inevitably arise with advances in these technologies. Neuroscientists have, in general, been slow to think about the ethical implications of their work. A case in point is the Neuroethics Society, which was founded only very recently. Moreno urges those involved in neuroscience research to think about the possible applications of their work and to become active in the policy-making process. He also advocates setting up some kind of ‘neurosecurity’ board to regulate the use of the emerging technology. This would also serve to ensure that research funded by the military remains as transparent as possible.
Moreno is very much a part of the establishment: he has served on numerous federal advisory committees, advised the Department of Homeland Defense on biodefence, and testified before both the Senate and the House of Representatives. Nevertheless, Mind Wars is even-handed and thought-provoking. It is very readable, and easily accessible to people without a background in neuroscience.