Supersoldiers: Can Science and Technology Deliver Better Performance?
Brain wave-reading threat detectors can dramatically increase a soldier’s ability to spot danger. Advances in telepresence might spare soldiers by letting them send mechanical avatars into battle instead of going in person. Brain stimulation by ultrasound, electromagnetic fields and mild electric currents shows promise of sharpening soldiers’ minds. Could drugs or implanted microchips dull or eliminate the memories that cause post-traumatic stress disorder?
Researchers believe a skintight suit called Warrior Web will help soldiers run faster, lift more weight, and hike farther with less fatigue and less risk of injury. Newly developed “gecko gloves” already enable soldiers to scamper up sheer glass walls. Researchers at the U.S. Army Aeromedical Research Laboratory have found that doses of the drug modafinil can keep UH-60 helicopter pilots alert and operating safely for 40 hours at a time. Can metabolism be altered so soldiers can operate for days with little or no food? Will chemicals erase soldiers’ fear in battle?
The Army continues to turn to science in its quest to create superior soldiers. The service, often in conjunction with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, known as DARPA, has pursued these and other ideas for improving soldier performance.
‘Crazy Blue-Sky Research’
Some of it is “crazy blue-sky research” that dates back a decade or more, said Michael Burnam-Fink, a Ph.D. student in Arizona State University’s Human and Social Dimensions of Science and Technology program. It was largely shelved during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to focus on more immediate concerns like developing technologies to defeat improvised explosive devices and inventing better prosthetics, he said.
Now, researchers have some freedom to get back to blue-sky projects. In recently released science and technology “campaign plans,’’ or long-term research plans, the Army Research Laboratory vows to pursue “high-risk and high-payoff” research aimed at producing “revolutionary impacts on the Army’s warfighting capabilities.” Among its goals: maximize “the effectiveness of Soldiers physically, perceptually, and cognitively.”
The plans include a “human sciences” portion that calls for research in areas ranging from brain stimulation to exoskeleton development to “implantable interfaces,” including “sensors, computers, and controls implanted in teeth, under the skin, taken orally or directly interfaced with neural tissue.”
This sounds like exciting stuff, but don’t expect rapid progress, said Burnam-Fink, who has studied and written about the military’s work on human enhancement. “I would be skeptical of any grand breakthroughs, if only because I think human bodies are not all that well understood, scientifically speaking. If it was easy, we would have done it by now—we’ve been working on it since the 1950s,” he said. “I think there is very little that the warfighter can expect to see before, say, 2025.”
Andrew Herr is a bit more optimistic. He is president of Helicase LLC, a consulting company that advises the U.S. military on human performance optimization and other emerging and potentially disruptive technologies. “In the last five years, there have been huge advances in the tools to study biology” and the understanding of human biology. The field is ripe for breakthroughs, he said.
“I think we have a huge opportunity. I compare it to the development of microprocessors. From the 1960s to the 1980s, there were tremendous foundational advances in computing, but they had comparatively little effect on warfare. But, from the 1980s to the 2000s, microprocessors and computing changed warfare—and society,” Herr said. “If you look at the modern human performance modification field as starting roughly with the Human Genome Project in 1993, we’re now about 20 years later and have had similar foundational advances in science and tools. In the next 20 years, we may see huge impacts on warfare and society.”
Send Machines, Not Soldiers
If there was a golden age for trying to use science to build better soldiers, it hit its apex in 2002, when the Defense Sciences Office at DARPA embarked on a multipronged program aimed at enhancing human performance in combat.
Headed by Joseph Bielitzki, the Defense Sciences Office launched the Metabolically Dominant Soldier program to alleviate warfighters’ need for sleep, modify their need for food, and provide them with new methods to control pain and prevent blood loss in the heat of combat.
“Be all that you can be—and a lot more,” Bielitzki boasted.
Then the wars intervened. Enthusiasm for producing better soldiers through science yielded to the urgency of devising better protection against roadside bombs. DARPA’s focus switched from producing superior soldiers to producing superior equipment, but that didn’t stifle researchers’ imaginations.
Consider a project called Avatar. In 2012, DARPA asked Congress for $7 million to begin developing “remotely operated robotic systems that can operate in dismounted environments.” The robots would be “bi-pedal machines,” and “tele-
presence” would enable a “synergistic partnership between machine and operator.” Under the operator’s control, the robot would be sent to the battlefield “to act as the soldier’s surrogate,” DARPA proposed.
“Once developed, Avatar will allow soldiers to remain out of harm’s way while still leveraging their experience and strengths to complete important missions such as sentry/perimeter control, room clearing, combat casualty recovery, and, eventually, dismounted combat maneuver,” the budget request said.
Avatar was ahead of its time. Although it was proposed by DARPA, “it never materialized as a program—at least not yet,” said Jared Adams, DARPA’s director of media relations.
From Brain to Screen
The Army is working on ways to merge man and machine. Research on brain-computer integration aims to develop methods for feeding signals from the brain directly to computers, eliminating the need for other input devices such as keyboards. Early work done by DARPA and then turned over to the Army began with the notion that human brains are naturally adept at detecting potential dangers. In fact, they detect threats and danger signals even when the human is not consciously aware of it.
Brain signals would be detected by electrodes on the scalp and then converted by computational algorithms into signals that the computer can understand, said Brent Lance, a neuroscience researcher at the Army Research Lab’s Human Research and Engineering Directorate.
A form of that technology is already being applied. The Cognitive Technology Threat Warning System sends brain signals directly to a computer to greatly increase a soldier’s ability to spot threats on the battlefield. The system can spot threats 91 percent of the time with few false alarms, DARPA says. That compares to a 53 percent rate for soldiers using binoculars, portable radars and cameras. The machine taps into “the brain’s natural threat-detection ability,” a DARPA program description explains.
Making the Brain Do More
Such capturing of brain signals merely takes advantage of work the brain is already doing. What if brains could be tweaked to do more? That’s the idea behind cognitive/affective research outlined in the Army Research Lab’s research campaign plans. It focuses on “augmenting” mental and emotional capacities through “electrical, chemical, or biological stimulation to the nervous system.”
Methods of neurostimulation might include “direct stimulation of neural tissue with electronic devices … including transcranial direct current stimulation, transcranial magnetic stimulation, and deep brain stimulation,” the research plan says.
The Army has already funded research that used transcranial pulsed ultrasound to stimulate circuits deep in the brain. William Tyler, an associate professor of neurobiology and bioimaging at Arizona State University, says his work shows ultrasound can stimulate specific areas of the brain much more accurately and much deeper than transcranial magnetic or electrical stimulation.
Tyler envisions soldiers being equipped with helmets “fitted with ultrasound transducers and microcontroller devices” in order to provide brain stimulation that would alleviate fatigue, reduce stress and anxiety, control pain, enhance cognition, and possibly protect against traumatic brain injuries.
Other forms of transcranial brain stimulation—which means stimulating the brain without piercing the skull—involve passing a tiny electric current through the brain or stimulating it with electromagnetism. Transcranial brain stimulation has been shown to enhance learning, reduce fatigue and increase alertness.
“Most interestingly, subjects who learned more using brain stimulation remember more months later than their control counterparts who didn’t receive stimulation. If you’re out looking for IEDs for hours at a time, it’s very hard to focus for that long,” Herr said. Transcranial stimulation might make it possible for soldiers to concentrate more, find more IEDs and thus have greater mission success. “The Army needs to consider these benefits to soldiers’ safety,” along with mission needs, costs and the ethics of altering human biology, he said.
Electrical stimulation appears to be safer than magnetic stimulation, Herr said. Electrical stimulation makes it easier for brain synapses to function. By contrast, electromagnetic stimulation appears to force synapses to function.
Another approach to tinkering with brains is not transcranial but intracranial: getting inside the skull. That’s already being done for some patients who suffer from Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy or severe depression. Brain implants—sometimes called brain pacemakers—send very small electrical currents through parts of the brain to alleviate symptoms.
Remembering What Was Lost
A similar approach is being explored for repairing the damaged memories of servicemembers who have suffered traumatic brain injuries. Through a program called Restoring Active Memory, DARPA hopes “to develop and test a wireless, fully implantable neural-interface medical device” that can be planted in a damaged brain to revive memory. In addition to developing a workable implant, however, DARPA must also discover how a healthy brain creates memories and how stimulating a damaged brain might restore that ability.
If brain stimulation can restore a damaged brain’s ability to remember, could it also make a healthy brain smarter? Possibly, Herr said, but it would be “a huge jump” to go from today’s brain implants for Parkinson’s and epilepsy to those that DARPA hopes to create for restoring memories. It would also be another long leap to go from brain restoration to intelligence augmentation, he said.
The Ethics of Enhancement
Imagine soldiers made supersmart by brain prosthetics; able to operate for days with little food or sleep, thanks to a modified metabolism; and rendered fearless by pharmaceuticals.
Such is the steady stream of hype about the imminent arrival of mutant warriors and cyborg soldiers, but DoD remains fairly cautious about diving headlong into human enhancement.
Even DARPA—the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which a decade ago envisioned building a “Metabolically Dominant Soldier”—has curbed its enthusiasm.
“We don’t currently have, nor do I recall, any recent programs that are investigating the role of pharmaceuticals to enhance soldier performance,” media relations director Jared Adams said.
Instead, the agency is “focusing on returning basic motor skills to wounded warriors, taking them to the level they once performed at, not elevating or enhancing able-bodied soldiers beyond their current capabilities,” Adams said.
What about brain enhancements? “We are not currently supporting any work in this area,” said Maria Tolleson, a spokeswoman for the Army surgeon general.
Brain implants? “We do not work with implantable devices,” said Brent Lance of the Army Research Laboratory. Nor does the lab work on “direct electrical, chemical or biological stimulation of the nervous system.”
Steroids and other body-enhancing drugs? “There are significant risks associated with [steroid] use, including cancer and adverse cardiac effects,” Tolleson said. “They are inappropriate for use solely to boost strength and endurance. As for other drugs, in general, risk versus benefit must be weighed when considering the use of medications or other performance-enhancing products.”
A long-range Army Research Laboratory campaign plan includes possible research into brain functions and the effects of brain stimulation sometime between now and 2035, but the military’s reticence to dabble with human biology hasn’t curtailed a popular perception that biologically modified supersoldiers will soon be marching over the horizon.
That, in turn, has sparked a spate of inquiries into the ethics of human enhancement. Could biologically modified soldiers be considered “‘biological weapons’ under the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (considering that the term is not clearly defined)?” Three ethics professors explored this question in a 2013 report titled “Enhanced Warfighters: Risk, Ethics, and Policy.”
“Should warfighters be required to give their informed consent to being enhanced?” they ask. What if enhancements cannot be reversed? Would having enhanced and unenhanced warfighters in the same unit affect unit cohesion? And what happens when enhanced warfighters return to civilian life?
Patrick Lin, lead author of the report, doesn’t offer conclusive answers to these and other ethical questions but insists that it’s time for an in-depth discussion. “Given a significant lag time between ethics and technology, it is imperative to start considering their impacts before technologies fully arrive on the scene and in the theater of war,” Lin writes.
Exploring the ethics of human enhancement is important, agreed Andrew Herr, who consults DoD on optimizing human performance, but ethics discussions shouldn’t preclude progress on human enhancement.
“Broadly, there is reticence to do research on truly enhancing human performance,” Herr said. “There are more restrictions in the military for [human enhancement] research than in any other organization, including universities.” There is “more reticence than is called for.”
Focusing on the Outside
External enhancements like the Warrior Web seem easier. Already “the results are promising,” said Michael LaFiandra, chief of the Dismounted Warrior Branch at the Army Research Laboratory’s Human Research and Engineering Directorate.
The Warrior Web bodysuit is intended “to provide a small muscular assist” while soldiers walk, making it easier to walk farther without injury while carrying significant loads. Some versions of these “soft, lightweight undersuits” feature spring-assisted ankles; others offer hydraulic knee braces. They use webbing straps to stabilize joints and redistribute weight. Some use electric power to help human muscles; others do not.
“There is still work to be done” before the Army is ready to start issuing Warrior Web garments, LaFiandra said.
Warrior Web suits are not to be confused with exoskeletons, a separate technology that is intended to give ordinary soldiers superhuman strength. Exoskeletons typically have powerful arms and legs of their own, making them something like robots with soldiers strapped inside to act as the brains.
With hydraulic arms and legs, some exoskeletons enable soldiers to lift and carry 200 pounds over extended distances with ease. Miniature computers enable some of the exoskeletons to move in sync with their human wearers.
Even the most advanced of today’s exoskeletons, however, are too delicate for combat, Burnam-Fink said. “It looks like they’ll be used for logistics roles because they’re too fragile, balky, and power-hungry to take into the field.”
Soon soldiers may be able to climb like lizards thanks to “gecko gloves.” Designed to mimic the clinging ability of geckos’ feet, the gloves—they’re actually hand-size silicon pads—have enabled a 218-pound man to climb up and down a 25-foot glass wall while carrying a 50-pound load.
The gloves feature nanofibers that cling tightly to surfaces because of electromagnetic attraction, but there are some limitations—for now, at least. The surfaces to be climbed have to be smooth. Glass, polished stone, metal, and even varnished wood will do. Brick probably will not. Therefore, the gloves need more work.
So do telescopic contact lenses, night vision contact lenses, wearable jet packs designed to speed walking and running, drugs to erase the memories that cause post-traumatic stress disorder, and a multitude of other proposed soldier enhancements.
Progress comes slowly, Burnam-Fink said. “The military in general, and DARPA in particular, funds a lot of basic research, but it’s often unclear what the applications are or when they’ll be available.”
To Herr, however, the advances made in understanding human biology in recent years are just about to begin paying off. The next 20 years will produce dramatic changes in human performance that will provide “huge benefits” to the military and society in general, he