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What will the wars of the future look like? That’s the question posed by a recent issue of the journal Synesis, centred on the theme of “Neurotechnology in National Security.” The issue assembles seven articles discussing the use of emerging brain-related technology for military purposes, detailing practical and ethical issues, and making recommendations for American policy.

Spurred on by developments in brain science, such as an experiment in Germany that used neuro-imaging to predict test subjects’ decisions before they had conscious awareness that they had made a choice, the Synesis contributors seek to promote the issue of neuroscience in national security and bring the existing knowledge from theory into practice.

“It cannot (nor should not) be overlooked that other nations are making tremendous investments in brain science, and much of this research could provide a basis for offensive capabilities,” says a paper co-authored by Chris Forsythe and James Giordano, the issue’s editors.

The paper argues that the U.S. needs to be proactive in researching and developing neurotechnology for military purposes, to remain ahead of international competitors and protect national security. But “a forward-looking program of research, development, testing and evaluation … does not imply our developing and stockpiling potential neuroweapons,” it says, arguing that developments in neurotechnology would best be used for intelligence efforts.

Forsythe and Giordano discuss four broad types of technology they believe could be valuable for national security: nano-neuroscience, pharmaceuticals, neuro-imaging and cyber-neurosystems. They provide examples, such as nanomachines that modify the brain’s functioning to enhance the performance of troops, mind-reading by means of neuro-imaging, and devices that would increase a person’s brainpower by linking them to a computer.

The other papers go into more detail. Some of them discuss brain-machine interfaces, which could wire a human into a computer network. These devices could be used to control advanced weapons systems directly from the mind, or for training and supplementing the abilities of intelligence analysts. DARPA, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is already developing technology that would allow intelligence analysts to sift through images at unprecedented speeds.

One article, by Giordano and Rachel Wurzman, discusses at length the issue of neuropharmacological drugs in combat scenarios. Such drugs could paralyze or bring about passivity in enemy troops, or even kill them instantly. Using drugs in combat is not a new idea, according to Giordano and Wurzman, but modern scientific knowledge of the brain makes the idea more viable today than ever before.

Giordano argues that opposition to the use of science in combat is unrealistic. “The fact of the matter is that we do live in a world in which there are people who would like to do bad things to us or our friends,” said Jonathan Moreno, a scientist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, and the author of a guest editorial in Synesis.

However, Curtis Bell, of the Oregon Health & Science University, disagrees. He is opposed to the use of neurotechnology research for military purposes. “It’s not enough just to study the issue of ethics,” he said.

In 2010, Bell wrote a pledge for neuroscientists refusing to “participate in … violations of basic human rights or international law.” The pledge, which he says has been signed by about 200 neuroscientists, opposes the application of neuroscience to torture or aggressive war.

Bell’s pledge also comes out against “forms of coercive interrogation and manipulation that violate human rights and personhood,” giving such examples as drugs that induce pain, anxiety, or unwarranted trust.

“In signing, neuroscientists will join with others in helping to move the world away from militarism toward a culture of peace and respect for human life,” he said.

What is the Brain-Computer Interface Technology

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