Cyborg super soldiers enhanced by advancements in bioengineering and other research fields are coming, but the Department of Defense is not prepared for what that will mean for the warfighter, the military as a whole, and civilians.
“In the next 30 years, you're going to need to have to deal with these legal and ethical quandaries, and you're not ready for it,” Peter Emanuel, an Army researcher and the lead author of a year-long DoD study, said.
In recent years, the medical community has made great strides in prosthetics and implants as technology has created new possibilities.
The US military envisions a future where in the next few decades, soldiers could become enhanced through ocular, auditory, muscular, and even neural augmentations, such as retinal overlays or neural implants that fuse man and machine in unprecedented ways.
There are obviously huge technical challenges to radically redesigning human beings, but, perhaps more importantly, there are also countless ethical and legal concerns. With these developments will inevitably come a tug-of-war between what can be done and what should be done.
“When you talk about somebody who lost their sight because of a bomb blast or somebody who lost their limb to an IED, it makes sense people would have fewer ethical qualms about giving them something that would replace that functionality,” explained Emanuel, who has a Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology.
“But, when you get to essentially giving them super speed, like the $6 million man, that's what we call enhancement. A lot of people start to have questions when we talk about enhancement.”
And, of course, there are a lot more concerns when you start talking about replacing fully-functional body parts with machine capability simply to become enhanced.
Then, there are questions about how these soldiers serve and their role in the military.
“You're going to have mixed populations of soldiers that are not enhanced and soldiers that are enhanced. What does that mean? Is that going to have an impact to morale and camaraderie? Are [enhanced soldiers] going to be coveted assets?” Emanuel asked.
“Will that pigeonhole the career of [an enhanced] soldier?” he continued, explaining that command could decide the warfighter is too valuable to promote or stop deploying while the soldier is desperately trying to stay stateside.
Some of the biggest questions and concerns come up, though, when a service member leaves the military and returns to civilian life after receiving enhancements.
“Now he wants to go to the Bellagio [Hotel Las Vegas] and go to the crap tables and he's a supercomputer. Or, now this person is back and they're stigmatized,” Emanuel said.
“What if the soldier wants to travel and it's like, wow, you're a military asset? What if now he wants to go to tour through Russia or some other adversarial area. Now, we're concerned about somebody getting access to that particular piece of hardware.”
And, further complicating matters is that there are currently no real standards for what it means to be human, a challenge when today's researchers are discussing redesigning human beings through scientific and technological innovation.
“There's really no global norms,” Emanuel told Insider. “What you're seeing is a convergence of a lot of different areas of technology right now … a convergence between bioengineering and artificial intelligence and nanoscience.”
“Right now we're in such an interesting spot in our timeline as human beings. We see these areas of powerful technology converging to create all these opportunities in this space. And, the reality is that our government and our legal systems and even our societal norms can't move as fast as the technology can. We're playing catch up.”
“What is legal? What is ethical? What am I comfortable with and what am I not comfortable with?” he continued. “By the time we get an answer to that and get a global agreement, technology is already in a different place.”