Neuromilitary: The Dark Side of Government Spending

Michael N. Tennison and Jonathan D. Moreno report that National security organizations in the United States, including the armed services and the intelligence community, have developed a close relationship with the neuroscientific community. The latest technology often fuels warfighting and counter-intelligence capacities, providing the tactical advantages thought necessary to maintain geopolitical dominance and national security. Neuroscience has emerged as a prominent focus within this milieu, annually receiving hundreds of millions of Department of Defense dollars. Its role in national security operations raises ethical issues that need to be addressed to ensure the pragmatic synthesis of ethical accountability and national security. (abstract)

They make the obvious observance that the military establishment’s interest in understanding, developing, and exploiting neuroscience generates a tension in its relationship with science: the goals of national security and the goals of science may conflict. An understatement, or is this the wave of the future? The sciences have not been neutral for a long while now. As John Brockman once said “Where the money flows the science flows.” This should be no surprise.

They report that new forms of brain scanning, brain–computer interfaces (BCIs), and neuromodulation, is being tapped for warfighter enhancement, deception detection, and other cutting-edge military applications to serve national security interests. I always love how the government hides their nefarious plans under the such ad hoc terms as “national security”. Arnold Wolfers describes the ambiguous history of this term as growing out of the old notion of national interest which can be seen as the pre-eminence of the interests of the nation, which can be understood as its main values (sovereignty, independence?). According to Wolfers this concept has faced two main evolutions. First of all it tends to be outweighed by the “mankind interest?. It seems very topical nowadays with the European integration and the dilution of national power. Secondly Wolfers asserts that there is a shift from a welfare society to a security conception of national interest. To finish, Wolfers stresses the importance of moral dimension in national security. When statesmen call for a security policy, they call for the sacrifice of some values (individual liberty) in the name of another (democracy).

As they report the militarization of the new cyborg, or cyborgization of the military is closer than we think. DARPA’s Augmented Cognition (Aug- Cog) program is seeking to find ways to use neurological information gathered from warfighters to modify their equipment accordingly. For example, the ‘‘cognitive cockpit’’ concept involved recording a pilot’s brain activity to customize the cockpit to that individual’s needs in real time, from selecting the least burdened sensory organ for communicating infor- mation to prioritizing informational needs and eliminating distractions. (ibid.)

They also report that via intracortical microstimulation (ICMS), a neurologically controlled prosthetic could send tactile information back to the brain in nearly real time, essentially creating a ‘‘brain-machine-brain interface’’. The technology underlying this concept is already evolving, and some researchers hope that optogenetics, which both enables ‘‘precise, millisecond control of specific neurons’’ and ‘‘eliminates most of the key problems with ICMS,’’ will ultimately supplant the ICMS for sensory feedback. (ibid.)

Along with the new prosthetics (BCI) another aspect is the neuropharmacological turn in medicine.  BCIs can operate prosthetics for therapeutic purposes, but they could also connect to orthotic exoskeletons that enhance strength and endurance. Similarly, therapeutic drugs like methylphenidate can help patients recover focus and attention, but they are also used, for example, by healthy college students looking to maximize academic performance. As they state it the use of  pharmaceutical neuroenhancement came to the public’s attention in 2003 when ‘‘two American pilots accidentally killed four Canadian soldiers and injured eight others in Afghanistan’’;  the pilots had been taking Dexedrine, the amphetamine-based ‘‘go pills’’ often used to reduce the fatigue induced by long missions.

In other studies they report how the military in its search to understand  post- traumatic stress disorder is heavily investing in propranolol. Scientists discovered that when propranolol is administered shortly after a traumatic event it could mitigate the long-term potential for internal cues to invoke post-traumatic stress. More recently, scientists demonstrated that propranolol can similarly reduce PTSD symptoms when administered ‘‘after retrieval of thememoryof apasttraumaticevent’’, not just immediately after the event itself. (ibid.)

The dark side of the ethical dilemmas they inform us connects to the notions of autonomy and freedom of choice.  “If a warfighter is allowed no autonomous freedom to accept or decline an enhancement intervention, and the inter- vention in question is as invasive as remote brain control, then the ethical implications are immense” (ibid.).

The other side of the dark coin is such organizations and NSA and CIA. National security agencies are also mining neuroscience for ways to advance interrogation methods and the detection of deception. The increasing sophistication of brain-reading neurotechnologies has led many to investigate their potential applications for lie detection. (ibid.) Many of these new neurochem drugs, therapies, etc. are already hitting the consumer world as neuroscientists discover a number of uses: ‘‘national security, medical diagnostics, advertising, insurance fraud and in the criminal justice system’’.

The Defense Intelligency Agency (DIA) in their recent commissioned report 2008 NRC report, Emerging Cognitive Neuroscience and Related Technologies recommended pursuing ‘‘research on multimodal method- ological approaches for detecting and mea- suring neurophysiological indicators of psychological states and intentions’’ (ibid.). Many of these new neurochem drugs are seen as part of that age old military and spy them of the ultimate truth serum. These reporters see aspects of this as myth that may now have a possibility, yet they also see it as going against certain U.N. resolutions such as Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). According to the CWC, a chemical that can cause ‘‘temporary incapacitation’’ is defined as a ‘‘toxic chemical’’ and is therefore banned from such use (ibid.)

What was interesting is what these two offer as a solution to these emerging problems. They tell us such liberal options as  bifurcating public science from national security may only drive the same research underground, undermining its current public accountability. Thus, it would be impractical to try to circumvent the ethical problems simply by cutting ties between science and national defense.(ibid.)

The thing they don’t mention is the notion of black ops funding that may already be doing advanced military research underground even as we speak.

1.  Tennison MN, Moreno JD (2012) Neuroscience, Ethics, and National Security: The State of the Art. PLoS Biol 10(3): e1001289. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001289

2 thoughts on “Neuromilitary: The Dark Side of Government Spending

  1. Reblogged this on oogenhand and commented:
    “Similarly, therapeutic drugs like methylphenidate can help patients recover focus and attention, but they are also used, for example, by healthy college students looking to maximize academic performance”
    Biohacking. Methylphenidate is also known as RITALIN…


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