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The BRAIN Initiative: The Quest For Cyborg Soldiers

Updated: Sep 24, 2018

The United States Armed Forces are regulated by a diverse set of law. When it comes to the the military's use of force, the applicable rules are largely derived from the United States Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) and the International Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC), which comes from international treaties and customs. Now, we need to consider how these rules apply to cyborg soldiers.

Yes, cyborg soldiers are on their way, and this is actually old (but little known) news. Back in his 2013 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama declared that 2013 was "the time to reach a level of research and development not seen since the height of the Space Race." President Obama highlighted as an example of significant scientific research that "our scientists are mapping the human brain to unlock the answers to Alzheimer's . . . ." But that was not the full scope of the government's investment into brain research.

Later in 2013, President Obama announced a $100 million investment into the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) initiative. While the BRAIN initiative included multiple government and private sector investments into a diverse range of research projects, one prominent recipient of funds was the famous Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

DARPA's mission is develop military uses for emerging technologies. The agency certainly has produced many military tools for the military, ranging from smart bullets to robots, DARPA can be credited for having a hand in many non-military advancements, significantly including a basis for the Internet as we know it. Regarding, neurotechnology, DARPA has been in that space since the 1970s.

Under the BRAIN initiative, DARPA lists nine projects, and here is how it describes them:

(1) Electrical Prescriptions (ElectRx)

"The ElectRx program aims to help the human body heal itself through neuromodulation of organ functions using ultraminiaturized devices, approximately the size of individual nerve fibers, which could be delivered through minimally invasive injection."

(2) Hand Proprioception and Touch Interfaces (HAPTIX)

"The HAPTIX program aims to create fully implantable, modular and reconfigurable neural-interface microsystems that communicate wirelessly with external modules, such as a prosthesis interface link, to deliver naturalistic sensations to amputees."

(3) Neural Engineering System Design (NESD)

"The NESD program aims to develop an implantable neural interface able to provide unprecedented signal resolution and data-transfer bandwidth between the brain and the digital world."

(4) Neuro Function, Activity, Structure and Technology (Neuro-FAST)

"The Neuro-FAST program seeks to enable unprecedented visualization and decoding of brain activity to better characterize and mitigate threats to the human brain, as well as facilitate development of brain-in-the loop systems to accelerate and improve functional behaviors. The program has developed CLARITY, a revolutionary tissue-preservation method, and builds off recent discoveries in genetics, optical recordings and brain-computer interfaces."

(5) Next-Generation Nonsurgical Neurotechnology (N^3)

"The N^3 program aims to develop a safe, portable neural interface system capable of reading from and writing to multiple points in the brain at once. Whereas the most advanced existing neurotechnology requires surgical implantation of electrodes, N^3 is pursuing high-resolution technology that works without the requirement for surgery so that it can be used by able-bodied people."

(6) Reliable Neural-Interface Technology (RE-NET) (Archived)

"The RE-NET program seeks to develop the technologies needed to reliably extract information from the nervous system, and to do so at a scale and rate necessary to control complex machines, such as high-performance prosthetic limbs."

(7) Restoring Active Memory (RAM)

"The RAM program aims to develop and test a wireless, fully implantable neural-interface medical device for human clinical use. The device would facilitate the formation of new memories and retrieval of existing ones in individuals who have lost these capacities as a result of traumatic brain injury or neurological disease."

(8) Restoring Active Memory -- Replay (RAM Replay)

"The RAM Replay program will investigate the role of neural “replay” in the formation and recall of memory, with the goal of helping individuals better remember specific episodic events and learned skills. The program aims to develop novel and rigorous computational methods to help investigators determine not only which brain components matter in memory formation and recall, but also how much they matter."

(9) Revolutionizing Prosthetics

"The Revolutionizing Prosthetics program aims to continue increasing functionality of DARPA-developed arm systems to benefit Service members and others who have lost upper limbs. The dexterous hand capabilities developed under the program have already been applied to small robotic systems used to manipulate unexploded ordnance, reducing the risk of limb loss among Soldiers."

(10) Systems-Based Neurotechnology for Emerging Therapies (SUBNETS)

"The SUBNETS program seeks to create implanted, closed-loop diagnostic and therapeutic systems for treating neuropsychological illnesses."

(11) Targeted Neuroplasticity Training (TNT)

"The TNT program seeks to advance the pace and effectiveness of cognitive skills training through the precise activation of peripheral nerves that can in turn promote and strengthen neuronal connections in the brain. TNT will pursue development of a platform technology to enhance learning of a wide range of cognitive skills, with a goal of reducing the cost and duration of the Defense Department’s extensive training regimen, while improving outcomes."

Should DARPA succeed in all of these projects, it would be hard to argue that we have not reached the biological singularity. From these projects' fruition, we would have individuals with mechanically enhanced physical capabilities, brains that can think at computer speed, storage of memories in the cloud, and more. In other words, we would have super soldiers that have reached the next stage of human evolution.

Considering the military's research, do you see any domestic legal issues that may arise? How about issues related to the law of armed conflict? Do you see any ethical issues?

Post your thoughts below and help develop the necessary content to for a blog post that takes a deep dive into the relevant issues.


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