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Human Augmentation: Future of the Future Soldier?

Emerging technologies are having a huge impact on the business of Warfighting. These technologies are not just limited to production of efficient and more lethal weapon systems but are also targeting the performance of human beings! The super soldier from the sci-fi flicks from Hollywood does not seem to be too farfetched an idea any more. This concept is being referred to as Human Augmentation or Human Performance Enhancement (HPE). Human augmentation is a well thought of process through which permanent or temporary bodily interventions are made with an aim of augmenting otherwise normal ranges of human function. Augmentation ranges from cosmetic surgery, to pharmacological interventions, gene therapy, neural implants, and prosthetics.

HPE is an umbrella term and includes a number of inter related technologies, which are capable of selecting and altering human characteristics and capacities to improve them beyond the existing human capabilities. The spheres in which human augmentation are being pursued are discussed below.

  • NeurotechnologyThe idea that the brain can be enhanced is the direct result of deep insight that neuroscientists have been able to achieve examining the human brain through the nineteenth and twentieth century. Currently a lot of work is underway to enhance various brain functions like memory, decision making, impulse control, creativity and happiness of a human being. For e.g. what if the Hippocampi (memory storage unit of the human brain) of a soldier can be enhanced using an implant? You may have a warrior who can recall every briefing, order, plan, contingency, map, terrain details and technicalities of the equipment he his handling at lightning speed! Combine this with the Artificial Intelligence and Robotics and you will pretty much achieve ‘Super Intelligence’. Also it may be possible to switch off/on certain neurons using neural stimulators to ensure that a soldier is never depressed, always happy and understands the reason of his existence!

 

  • Bionics and ProstheticsBionics is the study of mechanical systems that function like living organisms or parts of living organisms. 3D printing or Additive Manufacturing has fast tracked the bionics field greatly. It is already happening that amputees including soldiers suffering limb loss in war/anti terror operations can obtain designer limbs at reduced costs. In the very foreseeable future, the disability will not be something to be worried about and may become an opportunity to get  better and more capable limb(s)! In fact some scientists are of the opinion that it would be possible to upgrade our limbs in the future as we do for our mobile phones or laptops! Presently, robotic exoskeletons (limbs are not replaced but are given extra strength and in some cases extra dexterity) seem to be the preferred option or path being examined by the USA scientific community for its soldiers which can allow these personnel to carry heavier loads to greater distances in faster time frames with relatively much less fatigue. However, questions for attaching these exoskeletons to the brain signals and providing bionics a skin which is sensitive to touch are yet to be answered satisfactorily.

 

  • Gene Editing  The recent development of CRISPR-cas9 [(Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) and CRISPR-associated (Cas)] gene editing tool brings into focus the scope of altering our DNA to improve various human traits such as intelligence, athleticism, or at some stage the moral reasoning itself. Demonstrations have already been made by the researchers in creating hornless cattle! It is entirely possible now to make designer babies with requisite strength, looks and smarts. The issue at hand is more ethical then scientific. Several surveys in the western world indicate that while majority opinion is for accepting gene editing for eradication of diseases, not many are in favour of tinkering with genes to get better looks, strength or smartness.

 

  • NootropicsNootropic (from nous, the Greek word for "mind") are drugs that affect and theoretically enhance the cognitive domain of humans. The term coined in 1972 by a Romanian chemist, referred to drugs capable of enhancing learning capabilities and memory of humans. While anecdotal evidence of performance enhancement,which is the resultant of clearer focus, greater problem solving capabilities etc exists, there is no empirical evidence of the same. Further, no long term study of what side effects these drugs can have on the human body exists. Some scientists even refer to these drugs as steroids for the brain and attach a negative connotation to their consumption.

 

Ethical Issues While the benefits on the battlefield are numerous, what are the pitfalls or risks? How can one decide, how much brain enhancement is acceptable? Does this amount to having a human-robo soldier? Can the agency enhancing the brain, control the mind of the implanted? What would be the long term effects on the soldier’s health? Can the soldier be ordered to present his body for enhancement? Can the soldier be returned to his earlier state post termination of the war/operation requiring augmentation? These are some of the questions which need answers simultaneously as the HPE research progresses.

Notwithstanding the ethical and moral issues listed above as also the wider societal debate raging all over the world, the scientific community especially those related to defence R&D are continuing their work towards achieving the perfect soldier! USA and China have made significant progress in HPE even though not enough details are available in the public domain.

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Sandeep Tyagi
Senior Fellow
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