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Brain Science and the Future of Warfare: a Primer

The Future of Warfare and the Responsibilities of Today's Brain Science
Dr. James Giordano

Recent articles in the French (Les Echos) and British press (Daily Mail) have reported that future wars will increasingly involve the use of ever more sophisticated combinations of neural, cognitive, and computational science and technology. Over the past decade, international advances in these areas are enabling greater capabilities to understand - and control - neurological processes of thought, emotion and behaviour, and the power conferred by this knowledge and control certainly has not been overlooked by a number of the world's militaries. Drugs and various forms of brain stimulation can be used to optimize the performance of military personnel, which some view as affording potential to create "super soldiers". What's more, brain science can be harnessed to develop weapons that act on the nervous system to produce profound physical effects, and in some cases cause death. Indeed, the recent use of sarin gas and the nerve agent VX has prompted renewed discussions about the continued availability of neurological weapons, and the viability of dual-use applications of neuroscience research.

The United States government communicated that development and employment of so-called neuroweapons '...crosses a line'. Clearly, the" line" represents waiting to see if such neuroweapons will be developed, and what threat they pose. In crossing that line, it is now time to pursue and obtain a deeper, fuller and more realistic understanding and regulation of the ways brain science can be put to such "dual use" in military and warfare agendas. Increasingly more sophisticated and ever more capable techniques and technologies of brain science are being viewed for their potential to create neuroweapons that are more specific in their ability to affect thought, emotions, behaviour, and health. More selective drugs , microbes, toxins and a variety of devices - including unmanned autonomous vehicles with computerized "decision-making systems" that are modelled after neurological networks - can now all be engaged as weapons. So, while sarin and VX are class 1 agents under the current Biological Toxin and Weapons and Chemical Weapons Conventions, their recent use serves as a reminder - if not wake-up call - that these substances are still around. But as noted by the Australia Group at the Eighth Review Conference of the Biological Toxin and Weapons Convention late last year, current conventions that define and restrict the use of biological and chemical weapons do not necessarily account for newer developments in neuroscience and neurotechnology, and so a more precise examination and perhaps classification of dual-use brain science may be in order.

Ongoing efforts [1] of the Ethics & Society Subproject 12 of the Human Brain Project (HBP) are focusing on thoroughly reviewing what constitutes 'dual use' applications of brain science , both within the HBP and more broadly, and recommending policies for neuroscientific research that can be employed in such ways [2]. As noted in one of the forthcoming SP12 reports, these recommendations include: establishing a permanent working group to address and assess HBP activities with potential for military-warfare uses; engaging this working group in discussions with various national defence and security organizations and the public; and developing an educational program to provide seminars, webinars, publications, and online informational material for HBP groups, as well as the public and governmental agencies that addresses military-warfare use of HBP efforts. Moreover, it was recommended that the HBP update its mission statement to proscribe specific military-warfare applications of its programs' research, and that it establishes requirements for all HBP research personnel to explicitly affirm such proscription, and be prohibited from receiving military funding both during their tenure in HBP-supported activities, and for a defined period of time subsequent to their involvement.

This approach calls for responsibility for accurate assessment of research, proactive responsiveness and engagement by researchers, revision of identified research efforts that pose concern, and efforts toward regulation of brain research that can be used in military and warfare agenda. This is laudable and noteworthy, even if only as a first step. But more imposing issues remain: such research will still likely be conducted by individuals and groups that do not heed proposed guidelines or policies; and while it may be possible to guide and regulate brain research (at least to some extent), the actual use of brain science to improve performance of military personnel and to develop neuroweapons is far more difficult to control. But these challenges can also be regarded as opportunities - and calls - for action. Scientific committees and political organizations should engage discussions to acknowledge and assess the current and potential risks and threats posed by brain science, and the international community of brain scientists and ethicists should become ever more participatory in informing and developing policies and regulations to govern dual-use neuroscientific research and its applications. History has provided ample evidence that science and technology afford great power, and can be used to harm as well as heal. With further strides to explore and control the brain, it becomes crucial to pay close attention to each and every step we take in the present, so as to maximize the benefits, and meet and mitigate, if not prevent, the risks and threats of what brain science may portend for the future.

Dr. James Giordano is Researcher in HBP's Neuroethics & Philosophy Group at the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics, Uppsala University. He is Professor in the Departments of Neurology and Biochemistry, Chief of the Neuroethics Studies Program in the Pellegrino Center for Clinical Bioethics, and Co-director of the O'Neill-Pellegrino Program for Brain Sciences and Global Health Law and Policy at the Georgetown University Medical Center.

[1] Reports of the SP12 Foresight Lab and the SP12 Neuroethics and Philosophy Group on Dual-Use will be available for public view in the future; please visit the HBP website for announcement of release.
[2] Recommendations are supported by findings from an SP12 seminar held at the European Institute for Theoretical Neuroscience in March 2016 featuring participation from international experts on dual use of research and HBP researchers. The full report can be found here.