From the Archives: DARPA and Neuroethics

moreno-blog-100In an essay for Cerebrum in 2004, neuroethicist Jonathan Moreno described how the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) was supporting projects aimed at using neuroscience to improve US military prospects. This month, Moreno, a professor at University of Pennsylvania and a member of the former US bioethics commission, wrote for The Neuroethics Blog on “neurosecurity”—its history and current strategy and the need for neuroethicists to weigh in on it.

In 2004’s “DARPA on Your Mind” he stepped through a series of research areas, spelling out some of the ethical questions attached to tinkering with the brain:

But these days DARPA seems more concerned with enhancing soldiers’ capacity to go without food or sleep, and even to heal their own injuries, than it is with psychic deconstruction or reprogramming. As reported by the journalist Noah Shachtman and described in DARPA’s website, a project called “Metabolic Dominance” aims to develop a “nutraceutical” that would vastly improve soldiers’ endurance. The agency has also invested in sleep-reduction experiments, and in examining whether the body’s core temperature can be altered depending on weather conditions. Seriously injured soldiers might be able to go into a sort of hibernation while they healed, perhaps after self-administering advanced wound-healing medication. “The ultimate goal,” DARPA says, “is to enable superior physical and physiological performance by controlling energy metabolism on demand.”

The ethical issues suggested by such work should be flying off this page by now. How will individuals be recruited to try what will obviously be very dangerous experiments? If such experiments are done in secret, how will they be ethically reviewed? What are the dangers of such information falling into “the wrong hands,” and are there any “right hands” for this kind of knowledge? Is any extension of human abilities justified by the need for the state to protect a society that is free and democratic? Or is nature itself at hazard for distortions that make the ingestion of genetically modified organisms pale in comparison?

Moreno suggested:

Whatever the means used for harnessing the knowledge that is forthcoming to acceptable public ends, our society will need to understand and debate the security options made possible by the new neuroscience. If only a small fraction of these war fighting innovations bear fruit, applied science will once again have played a decisive role in changing the face of armed conflict. In this case, science will have shifted the battlefield to our very brains.

Two years later, Dana Press released Moreno’s book that expands on these thoughts, Mind Wars: Brain Research and National Defense. He updated the book in 2012 for Bellevue Literary Press; it’s now titled Mind Wars: Brain Science and the Military in the 21st Century.

neblog-logoIn this month’s “Neuroethics and the Third Offset Strategy” post on The Neuroethics Blog, he cites the term neurosecurity to describe US military efforts in this area. For millennia, military commanders have sought a psychological edge over their adversaries; Moreno gives a quick tour through the history. In the present, DARPA reports on its work under the Brain Initiative umbrella and shares some results and data in the agency’s Open Catalog. Political scientists and tech journalists follow these leads, but neuroethicists have not, Moreno says. In the last paragraph, he cements his argument that ethicists absolutely should.

Military and intelligence applications of neurotechnologies are a critical driving force behind all the developments that are of interest to neuroethicists. Yet reporting and analysis of these developments have been left mainly to political scientists and technology journalists. As the third offset strategy and its components make it clear, it is no longer plausible for neuroethicists to fail to take into account the national security environment. To do so is to commit a form of scholarly malpractice.

Among the 14 recommendations given in the US bioethics commission’s 2015 report (part of the BRAIN Initiative), Gray Matters: Integrative Approaches for Neuroscience, Ethics, and Society, military is mentioned just once, as one of many groups that are stakeholders in neural enhancement research.

– Nicky Penttila

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