Pentagon Report Predicts Rise of Machine-Enhanced Super Soldiers

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In the past, high-tech weapons programs were canceled to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But now the Army says new technologies for ground troops could soon be on the way. (Getty Images)
In the past, high-tech weapons programs were canceled to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But now the Army says new technologies for ground troops could soon be on the way. (Getty Images)

By 2050, the U.S. military could have the ability to implant sophisticated machine technology into combat troops for enhanced performance capabilities such as super eyesight and advanced brain function for controlling unmanned drones and other weapons systems, according to a recent Defense Department study.

In "Cyborg Soldier 2050: Human/Machine Fusion and the Implications for the Future of the DOD," the Biotechnologies for Health and Human Performance Council study group surveyed several current and emerging technologies designed to augment human performance to present the feasibility, military uses, and ethical, legal, and social implications of the technology.

"The [study group] predicted that human/machine enhancement technologies will become widely available before the year 2050 and will steadily mature, largely driven by civilian demand and a robust bio-economy that is at its earliest stages of development in today's global market," the report states.

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The report's analysis states that the development of "direct neural enhancements of the human brain for two-way data transfer would create a revolutionary advancement in future military capabilities."

The study group predicted that by the half-century mark, special neural implants would enable operator's brains to interact with battlefield assets such as weapon systems and reconnaissance drones as well as personnel within "proximity or across distances through hierarchical relays with a central network."

"The potential for direct data exchange between human neural networks and microelectronic systems could revolutionize tactical warfighter communications, speed the transfer of knowledge throughout the chain of command, and ultimately dispel the 'fog' of war," the report states.

The procedure for implanting such technology could be "invasive and involve methods that use microelectrodes directly implanted into regions of the brain or extended across the surface of the brain," according to the report, which adds that noninvasive methods such as using electrodes on the scalp can also be used.

"The level of invasiveness of early iterations and the potential irreversibility of these implants may limit acceptance by military personnel and society, although specialized teams (Navy SEALs, Army Rangers, etc.) may be more inclined to accept these technologies if they could provide significant improvements in capability, lethality, survivability, and overall battlefield superiority," it continues.

The study group also predicted that the technology for enhanced vision will also be available by 2050, offering operators "enhanced computational capabilities, which would allow for target identification, selection, and data sharing with other individuals or military systems," the report states.

Like the neural implants, the procedure for vision enhancement, in some cases, would be invasive.

"The eyeball itself is completely replaced, and data feeds pass directly into the optical nerve bundle behind the eye," according to the report. "The sensory input for visualization would be completely mechanical or electronic in composition, which would allow data feeds of all types and across all spectra including those previously not capable of being visualized by humans."

The development of high-bandwidth, implantable interfaces that stimulate nerves at the single-neuron level will facilitate two-way data transfer that is not currently possible, the study group predicted.

"In essence, the eye would be completely artificial and capable of pulling in any manner of sensory data and feeding it directly into the brain for interpretation," the report states.

The report includes a disclaimer that stresses the study group's findings "are not an official policy or position of the Department of the Army, the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government."

The Defense Department should develop legal, security and ethical frameworks for this emerging technology, the report states.

The Pentagon should also support research to validate human-machine fusion technologies, the group recommended, "before fielding them and to track the long-term safety and impact on individuals and groups."

The report acknowledges that using such technology to enhanced human beings may not be accepted by the public.

"Across popular social and open-source media, literature, and film, the use of machines to enhance the physical condition of the human species has received a distorted and dystopian narrative in the name of entertainment," the report states. "Efforts should be undertaken to reverse negative cultural narratives of enhancement technologies."

The report's authors ultimately recommended that the Pentagon should conduct global assessments of societal awareness and perceptions of human-machine enhancement technologies.

"A generalized perception exists in the United States that our adversaries are more likely to adopt technologies that U.S. populations are reluctant or unwilling to field because of ethical concerns," the report concluded. "However, the attitudes of our adversaries toward these technologies have never been verified."

The study group recommended that a "more realistic and balanced (if not more positive) narrative, along with transparency in the government's approach to technology adoption, will serve to better educate the public, mitigate societal apprehensions, and remove barriers to productive adoption of these new technologies."

-- Matthew Cox can be reached at matthew.cox@military.com.

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