The combination of man and machine is not a thing of the distant future anymore. Research in that area seems particularly interesting in the context of creating cyborg supersoldiers.
In December 2020, a French ministerial defense ethics committee issued a report that gives permission to conducting research on an “augmented soldier” or “extended soldier.” It includes guidelines on cyborg technology which has been developing rapidly in recent years. The report has been created as a response to the fact that advanced technologies, some of them invasive, currently enable people to create, among other things, soldiers with extended operational capabilities. The document considers medical treatments, prosthetics, and implants that improve soldiers’ “physical, cognitive, perceptive and psychological capacities.”
The publication of the report raised a lot of interest in the media, as the only invasive methods currently used in the French Armed Forces are medicaments facilitating regeneration after physical activity, reducing stress, as well as anti-malaria medication and vaccinations. Responding to the doubts expressed by the media, the French Ministry of Defense issued a statement saying that: “the so-called invasive augmentations are not currently part of military plans. However, we have to prepare ourselves for such a future. In this extent, the opinion of the ethics committee is helpful to us. It allows us to search for ways and means that will ensure operational superiority while upholding our values and abiding by our international commitments.”
The ethics committee was appointed in January 2020 by the French Minister of Defense, Florence Parly. The committee includes 18 representatives of the French Armed Forces, as well as specialists from various fields: lawyers, ethicists, doctors and engineers. The opinions issued by the committee are of an advisory nature.
People have always tried to increase their physical or mental abilities. In the case of soldiers, the aim is to become more effective in combat, to gain advantage over the adversary and ultimately – to win. To this end, they have weapons, protective equipment, tools to facilitate observation and increase mobility. The same applies to physical or psychological training: the aim is to improve soldiers’ endurance, mental strength or combat skills.
Technology also works towards increasing or expanding human abilities. It is indisputable that technology makes life easier. We use computers, smartphones and cars on a daily basis. Currently, however, man and technology got so close that machines have become part of the human body. Or vice versa, man has become part of machine. Such a peculiar combination is usually called a cyborg, i.e. a technological man created as a result of combining biology and technology.
There are various definitions of a cyborg. One of them says that it is practically every person using a piece of technology to improve his or her natural abilities. In this sense, it can even be a person who wears corrective glasses. It may come as a surprise to many readers that a cyborg – apart from, obviously, Star Wars’ DarthVader, Iron Man or Robocop from a film of the same title – is also a person with a pacemaker or a hearing implant.
Generally speaking, the process of creating a cyborg develops in two parallel directions. In the first case, technology remains an external element connected to a human body (exo-extensions), and in the other, there is an intervention inside the body (endo-extentions). The first option offers a wide range of possibilities, the most obvious of which are prosthetics, advanced optical systems (e.g. the Integrated Visual Augmentation System – IVAS, introduced in the US Army), as well as exoskeletons, used both in medicine (e.g. for rehabilitation) and in the army (to assist soldiers in combat operations). The second option is inserting various types of implants.
Venom Snake, one of the characters in the computer game Metal Gear Solid, is a mercenary who has seen quite a few things in his life. Apart from the scars on his face and a black eye patch, he can be distinguished by a characteristic prosthetic left arm – he lost the limb during a foreign mission. The game has become very popular, and Venom has gained fame along with it. His character has become such a unique figure that it started a new trend in... prosthetics. At the end of 2020, the media informed that one of the fans of Metal Gear Solid, Daniel Melville, received a bionic (mechanical, but inspired by biology) arm based on Snake’s prosthesis. Melville’s artificial arm was created as a result of cooperation between the game’s producer, Japanese company Konami, and British company Open Bionics, specializing in developing bionic limbs.
It is not the first product inspired by the game: five years ago, there was talk in the media about another Brit, who lost his left arm in an accident. James Young received a bionic arm also due to the engagement of Konami. Moreover, Open Bionics released a line of products under the name Hero Arm – bionic prostheses inspired by popular characters from films and comic books.
The American Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) had been conducting research into bionic prostheses, which in 2015 resulted in developing an artificial prosthesis that can restore the sense of touch in the amputated limb. “The bionic anthropomorphic hand prosthesis is a great achievement,” says Łukasz Kamieński, PhD, of the Institute of American Studies and Polish Diaspora of the Jagiellonian University in Cracow, the author of the book entitled Nowy wspaniały żołnierz (Brave New Soldier). “However, it has a wider significance in the development of cybernetic circuits which allow human brain to control a machine. The machine, in turn, sends feedback collected by its sensors directly to the cortex.”
Today, such solutions are becoming increasingly popular on the civilian market. A good example is a Swedish man, Rickard Normark, who uses an artificial arm prepared by Chalmers University of Technology. The arm is not muscle-controlled. Normark’s body communicates with the prosthesis via an implant inserted into the arm bone by means of osteointegration. Additionally, the muscles surrounding the bone are fitted with electrodes which register the signals coming from the brain and transfer them via the implant to the electronic parts of the prosthesis. The prosthesis uses AI algorithms which turn impulses coming from the human nervous system into specific movements of the limb and fingers. It learns, in a way, to read signals sent by a human. It is integrated with the body in a way that also allows for sending information back to the brain, so that a person can feel the weight and hardness of held or moved objects. Consequently, Normark can lead a normal life. “I use it all day. It has become so normal that I don’t even think about it anymore. Thanks to osteointegration, you don’t feel you have an artificial arm, you consider it a part of your body.”
It is also possible to fix other elements of the human body. There was once a man, for example, who had a miniature camera installed in place of his missing eye. The camera enabled Rob Spence, alias Eyeborg, to record videos, which he could then transfer to his computer via a transmitter. In 2020, an Israeli company CorNeatVision, implanted an artificial cornea to a blind man, who as a result regained his sight.
Bionic limbs help people return to active life. They can also do professional sports, just like the South-African athlete Oscar Pistorius, who was the first sportsperson in the world to compete with able-bodied runners despite having carbon fiber leg prostheses. Apart from Pistorius, many other sportspeople decided to compete against non-impaired athletes, for example Blake Leeper, a runner, or Markus Rehm, a long jumper.
The subject of bionic limbs gives rise to an interesting question of how far we can go in improving or correcting humans. James Young’s bionic prosthesis is not only functional, but also fitted with a flashlight, a watch, and even a drone together with a controller. In this way, a disabled man has gained unique capabilities that no other person has.
To Chip a Soldier
Bionic limb prostheses, hearing or sight implants, can restore abilities once lost, but can also give new ones. Expanding human capabilities by putting implants in the body is a particularly complicated issue, as the method is invasive and requires surgical intervention.
Although there are no significant doubts as to using, for example, exoskeletons, the invasive methods raise some questions, such as the possibility to remove the implant or reverse the negative effects of its use. Despite these dilemmas, a lot of research is devoted to implants. Their usefulness and possibilities they offer surpass the potential problems. The civilian market already offers miniature computer implants, capable of sending and receiving information. A microchip placed under the skin on the hand, which holds various data, e.g. coded owner’s identity, allows for opening and locking the door to your house or car, making payments, and so on. The person possessing such an implant is also easier to locate.
World’s leading armies, including the US Army, are interested in such technology. In 2017, the Biotechnologies for Health and Human Performance Council (BHPC) established at the United States Department of Defense (DoD), organized a Scientific Panel, which resulted in publishing a report entitled “Cyborg Soldier 2050” in October 2019. Łukasz Kamieński says that the report “identifies solutions that can find actual military application before 2050, and some even before 2030. They are: invasive augmentation and extension of senses – cyborg ear and eye; combat exoskeleton – increasing physical strength, preventing injuries, monitoring the soldiers’ condition and optogenetically reprogramming their movements; and a bi-directional brain-machine interface. The last solution will be the most revolutionary technology. DARPA has been working on it for a long time.”
Potential military applications also seem to be quite significant. People with chips are easier to locate, which means, for instance, that the commander of a detachment moving on enemy territory will get exact information on the location of his subordinates. The soldiers will also know where their fellows are and if they can count on their support. Implants monitoring vital functions will help to control the soldiers’ physical state or check if they require medical assistance. Research on such biochips has been commissioned by DARPA to an American company Profusa. Medical engineer Natalie A. Wisniewski, one of the researchers employed by the company, explains: “Sensors will register your health condition on an ongoing basis. If something is wrong, you get a signal earlier, so that you can reach a doctor before you can feel the symptoms.” The continuation of these studies, so to say, was developing by Profusa in the fall of 2020 implantable biosensors, which can detect the presence of SARS-CoV-2 in the body very early, before the infected person feels the symptoms.
Again, just like in the case of prostheses and exoskeletons, the limits of application are set by medicine, especially in the most difficult process of implanting the brain. There is ongoing research on treating illnesses which cause memory loss. Such studies are only a step away from interventions aimed at crossing the brain-machine barrier. The goal is for a person to be able to make contact with machines in a more direct way, to, for example, give them orders using only thought. Such research might seem absurd at first, but it is very reasonable, especially in medicine. For people with spinal cord injuries or a broken spinal cord, a neurobridge – a kind of neural bypass, can be a chance to lead a normal life. It uses brain implants that send signals from the brain directly to the implants in the limb muscles. This way, the device reroutes the signals around the damaged part of the spinal cord, allowing the cortex to communicate with the limbs and regain control of them.
The company Neuralink, created by Elon Musk, is actively searching for a way to cross the brain-machine barrier, also using invasive methods, such as inserting implants into the brain. They are simultaneously working on non-invasive methods of reading and interpreting brain waves, which leads to potential military applications. There is talk about implants that would enable people to take control over weapon systems, e.g. drones. “Musk’s project is based on the successes of military research conducted since the beginning of the 21st century by DARPA, i.e. reading the brain signal and developing implantable electrodes that monitor neural activity and stimulate the brain,” emphasizes Łukasz Kamieński. However, the researcher also points out the invasiveness of interfaces based on deep stimulation of the brain is controversial and risky, so DARPA’s latest projects are rather inclined towards non-invasive solutions. “A method called optogenetics is very promising. It consists in genetic redesigning of selected neurons so that they become sensitive to light. This light helps to control them and thus influence brain activity – providing cognitive stimulation, bettering the mood, or relieving stress,” he says.
Americans are also working on the project called “Next-Generation Nonsurgical Neurotechnology.” As Łukasz Kamieński says, “they are high-tech neural interfaces allowing for bi-directional brain-machine-brain communication. For example: a soldier controls a drone with his mind, and processed data from the drone’s sensors are transferred directly to the soldier’s cortex.” The idea is based on the use of the so-called magneto-electric nanotransducers (MEnTs), which are so small that thousands of them would fit on the width of a human hair. MEnTs are injected into the circulatory system and guided to the proper part of the brain by means of a magnet. Patrick Ganzer, leading the research at the American company Battelle, concludes: “Our current data suggest that we are able to non-surgically insert MEnTs into the brain and use them to create a bi-directional neural connection.”
Thinking about the Future
The progressing cyborgization means not only new possibilities but also new threats, which is discussed in detail in the report of the French defense ethics committee. It formulates 13 main rules on the development, implementation and possible removal of consequences caused by using augmentations. At the same time, it emphasizes that the work on them should be conducted, due to the need to maintain superiority over a potential adversary, but also because of the unstable situation in the close geopolitical environment. It also stresses that the implementation of new solutions must be consistent with ethical standards and respect the soldiers’ dignity. The main principle in this context is the necessity to remove the consequences of using augmentations that are potentially undesirable for the soldiers.
Considering the fact that cyborgization will inevitably reach also our army, it seems necessary to undertake a wider discussion on the challenges Poland will have to face in this context. It might be advisable to create a consultative body that would help to formulate some general guidelines on related legal or ethical regulations, for instance. Łukasz Kamieński agrees with that idea: “Without a doubt. Biotechnologies aim at redesigning and reconfiguring human capabilities. Regardless of the degree of invasiveness, or the duration of introduced changes, the main issue is the impact they have on our humanity.” He also emphasizes that “the question on the machine-human relation in systems based on their cyborg-like fusion is of fundamental importance. That’s why military-related research in that area in the USA is controlled by bioethical bodies.”
It seems the process is unstoppable. Therefore, the “decision not to develop such solutions would mean conscious rejection of tools that could in the future ensure decisive tactical and strategic advantage. The creation of a supersoldier should undoubtedly be coupled with a rational consideration of the possible consequences, as well as social and ethical controversies. There are plenty of those. Many states, Poland included, will have to assess the ethical and legal aspects of army transhumanization,” emphasizes Łukasz Kamieński.
autor zdjęć: Getmilitaryphotos / Shutterstock, Open Bionics, Lockheed Martin, Bridgett Siter / US Army