Sunday, February 26, 2012

More Than Human? The Ethics of Biologically Enhancing Soldiers

By Patrick Lin, via The Atlantic

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.

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....

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...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.

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.

Ethical and safety issues

Established standards in biomedical ethics-such as the Nuremberg Code, the Declaration of Helsinki, and others-govern the research stage of enhancements, that is, experimentation on human subjects. But "military necessity" or the exigencies of war can justify actions that are otherwise impermissible, such as a requirement to obtain voluntary consent of a patient. Under what conditions, then, could a warfighter be commanded (or refuse) a risky or unproven enhancement, such as a vaccine against a new biological weapon? Because some enhancements could be risky or pose long-term health dangers, such as addiction to "go pills", should military enhancements be reversible? What are the safety considerations related to more permanent enhancements, such as bionic parts or a neural implant?
Military-civilian issues

As history shows, we can expect the proliferation of every military technology we invent. The method of diffusion is different and more direct with enhancements, though: Most warfighters return to society as civilians (our veterans) and would carry back any permanent enhancements and addictions with them. The US has about 23 million veterans-or one out of every 10 adults-in addition to 3 million active and reserve personnel, so this is a significant segment of the population. Would these enhancements, such as a drug or an operation that subdues emotions, create problems for the veteran to assimilate to civilian life? Would they create problems for other civilians who may be at a competitive disadvantage to the enhanced veteran who, for instance, has bionic limbs and enhanced cognition?

In contrast, cognitive and physical enhancements aim to create a super-soldier from a biomedical direction, such as with modafinil and other drugs. For battle, we want our soft organic bodies to perform more like machines. Somewhere in between robotics and biomedical research, we might arrive at the perfect future warfighter: one that is part machine and part human, striking a formidable balance between technology and our frailties.

In changing human biology, we also may be changing the assumptions behind existing laws of war and even human ethics.