Earlier this month, a report funded by the Greenwall Foundation examined the legal and ethical implications of using biologically enhanced humans on the battlefield. Given the Pentagon's open acknowledgement that it's working to create super-soldiers, this is quickly becoming a pertinent issue. We wanted to learn more, so we contacted one of the study's authors. He told us that the use of cyber-soldiers could very well be interpreted as a violation of international law. Here's why.
To help us parse through the details of the report, we contacted Keith Abney of California Polytechnic State University. Abney, along with Patrick Lin and Maxwell Mehlman, are the authors of the report, called "Enhanced Warfighters: Risks, Ethics, and Policy." The group, which investigates ethical and legal issues as they pertain to the military's effort to enhance human warfighters, received funding from the Greenwall Foundation.
"Too often, our society falls prey to a ‘first generation' problem — we wait until something terrible has happened, and then hastily draw up some ill-conceived plan to fix things after the fact, often with noxious unintended consequences," Abney told io9. "As an educator, my primary role here is not to agitate for any particular political solution, but to help people think through the difficult ethical and policy issues this emerging technology will bring, preferably before something horrible happens."
As Abney reminded us, this isn't some fantasy bourne of sci-fi paranoia. The Pentagon is full-steam-ahead on developing a host of human enhancement technologies, some of which have become public knowledge, and others that are undoubtedly classified.
For example, Abney told us that several research organizations are developing exoskeletons to increase human strength and endurance — including the ability to carry payloads of 200 pounds and to sustain a run at seven to 10 miles per hour (11 to 16 kph). These include Lockheed Martin's HULC, Raytheon's XOS, UC Berkeley's BLEEX, and other projects.
"There's also DARPA's Reconfigurable Structures program," he added, "the Z-Man is another bio-inspired project that is developing Geckskin, an adhesive fabric that can enable humans to climb walls like geckos, spiders, and other animals."
In addition, DARPA's Cognitive Technology Threat Warning System (CT2WS) is a computer-assisted visual aid that instantly identifies threats that warfighters might only subconsciously see given that only a fraction of their visual data is consciously registered. Similarly, the Pentagon's advanced concepts wing is also working on telescoping contact lenses.
The Human Assisted Neural Devices program, also from DARPA, seeks to strengthen and restore memories. But as Abney pointed out, there's other research that aims to produce drugs and treatments that can erase memories; post-traumatic stress disorder is a serious problem that the Pentagon would dearly love to stamp out.
Not content to rely to amphetamines and other stimulants — what the military likes to call "go pills — DARPA's Peak Soldier Performance program seeks to boost human endurance, both physical and cognitive.
"And though it may seem even more speculative, the military has funded the study of Metabolic Flexibility and Suspended Animation — which could actually make hibernation possible," says Abney.
Not surprisingly, the United States is not alone. China and Scotland are working to enhance acoustic speech with cochlear implants, while Canada is seeking to develop hearing protection that filters out environmental noises while enhancing verbal signals. "The same system could also utilize a tactile cueing system for pilots to detect motion without visual or auditory cues," he added.
Given the intrinsic and extrinsic nature of these technologies and how they're to be applied, we asked Abney how his team was able to define ‘enhancement' at all. For example, didn't humans become ‘enhanced' soldiers when they first picked up sword and shield?
Abney agreed that it's a difficult question — and it proved to be one of the most challenging aspects of the debate. Ultimately, after much consideration, they settled on a single definition.
"In the end, we argued that the best definition of an enhancement is that it's ‘a medical or biological intervention to the body designed to improve performance, appearance, or capability besides what is necessary to achieve, sustain or restore health,'" he said.
Abney and his colleagues make the case that the risks such enhancements pose over and above what is required for normal health helps explain their need for special moral consideration.
Indeed, given these incredible advancements — what is tantamount to the cyborgization of human beings — we asked Abney if the military has the right to enhance its soldiers in this way.
"That brings up a bunch of complicated issues," he said. "The requirement of ‘informed consent' in civilian bioethics does not — and realistically, cannot — fully apply to military service."
That said, the Greenwall report examined three different models for understanding the best way of thinking about the military's responsibilities to individual warfighters as it pertains to human enhancement.
"There's the medical model — including informed consent — of civilian bioethics, with the physician's responsibility being to the patient first and foremost. There's the research model used in civilian clinical trials — in which the physician has a goal of acquiring new knowledge and not just helping the patient. And then there's the public health model used in emergencies — such as quarantine during a pandemic — when the goal of protecting the public may outweigh individual rights."
Of these three, said Abney, the public health model is the best template for the military to follow. But the Greenwall report made some recommendations for a ‘hybrid framework' that addressed several items that the military should respect in order to ethically enhance its warfighters — a list that included such things legitimate military purpose, military necessity, the warfighter's dignity, consent, transparency, and so on.
When considering some of the enhancements under development, many of them could actually be considered a good thing — that they could actually reduce the physical and psychological burden placed on soldiers.
"For sure, enhancements, by definition, are a good thing — for some purposes — or else it makes no sense to term them ‘enhancements,'" Abney told io9. "A decreased capacity for pain helps if you need to keep fighting without being paralyzed by pain, but can harm one if, being insensate, one is unaware of a traumatic, perhaps lethal injury."
Without a doubt, noted Abney, the most significant questions involve the risks such enhancements impose, not merely on those undergoing the enhancement, but also on others who may be affected — like families and other civilians who come in contact with the enhanced warfighters, or enemy combatants and the public at large. To that end, the Greenwall report presented a rubric for assessing both the risks and the supposed benefits.
Getting to the heart of the matter, we asked Abney if the Geneva Convention, either explicitly or implicitly, forbids the use of enhanced soldiers in combat.
"There are no explicit rules against enhanced warfighters, he responded, "in part because the Convention, like all documents, was written against the assumptions of its time, and no one foresaw — at least, in any detail — the issues that we are discussing. It is, however, arguable that Article 36, in its prohibition of inhumane new weapons, might be used to prohibit certain kinds of enhanced warfighters."
Abney said that certain kinds of military robots would clearly be prohibited under Article 36. He also noted that a continuum exists between certain kinds of human-machine cyborgization and an ultimate replacement of all the organics of a warfighter by machine parts — turning a human warfighter into a fighting robot.
As an example, Abney points to Oscar Pistorius, the Olympian athlete who runs on artificial legs.
"Presumably if he enlisted, Article 36 would not ban his service," he says. "But what if his artificial legs could also serve as a flamethrower, or a missile launcher? At what point could a warfighter himself turn into a prohibited weapon? Imagine a warfighter with enhancements designed to violate the basic tenets of the laws of war and International Humanitarian Law, perhaps with psycho-cognitive enhancements — like a hypothetical "berserker" drug — that enabled him to kill ruthlessly and relentlessly."
Abney makes the case that if the result is superfluous injury, caused without distinction between combatant and civilian, than he might be considered in himself a novel weapon, prohibited under Article 36.
The Greenwall report also made note of the possibility that human enhancement could qualify as a biological weapon under the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention.
And indeed, the first article of the BTWC states that:
Each State Party to this Convention undertakes never in any circumstances to develop, produce, stockpile or otherwise acquire or retain: (1) microbial or other biological agents, or toxins whatever their origin or method of production, of types and in quantities that have no justification for prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes; (2) weapons, equipment or means of delivery designed to use such agents or toxins for hostile purposes or in armed conflict.
The key phrase, here, is "other biological agents." Typically, this passage is meant to apply to viruses or bacteria that's directed at adversaries, and not to the enhancement of one's personnel.
So, could a human be a ‘biological agent'?
"Well, presumably the BTWC requires the agent be biological in nature (e.g., a smallpox virus), as opposed to purely chemical (e.g., mustard gas) or physical (e.g., a kinetic bomb); and an agent is a substance or actor employed for some effect or purpose (e.g., LSD is a psychotropic agent)."
In a broader but consistent sense, said Abney, agents can be persons too — like a CIA ‘secret agent.'
"If so, then enhanced warfighters can be agents," he noted. "Even if we reject this understanding and stipulate that biological agents must be living but nonperson substances — an interpretation that is not explicit in the BTWC — we can still consider the enhancement technology itself as an agent, apart from the warfighter it enhances. So, a virus that enhances warfighters by removing inhibitions (like, say, the virus that causes toxoplasmosis) may be seen as a biological agent."
Abney noted that some biological agents that don't directly harm adversaries, such as anabolic steroids for increased strength — are still applicable as biological agents.
Given the Greenwall report's somewhat startling suggestion that the use of human enhancement on the battlefield may in fact constitute a war crime, we asked Abney if it also violates our moral sensibilities — that, when used in this way, it is repugnant to the values of humanity.
"The idea of ‘inhumane weapons' sometimes evokes such sentiments, but objective violations of crucial human values — such as the principles of distinguishing between combatants and noncombatants, or avoiding unnecessary suffering and superfluous injury — do not rest on whatever particular emotions that accompany them. One commits a war crime when wantonly murdering civilians, whether one does so in horror, or numb acceptance, or with glee. So arguments that appeal merely to sentiments or sensibilities are unimpressive."
In closing, we asked Abney what frightens him the most about the potential for human enhancement on the battlefield.
"That the human warfighters who are so enhanced will gradually be regarded by the military as very special, expensive, valuable tools, and no longer as full persons with all the usual rights and duties accorded full human persons," he replied. "To join a military has always been to accept one's role in a larger cause, and with certain diminished freedoms as a result — but the intrinsic value of a warfighter has never before been routinely confused with the merely instrumental value of a tank or a missile or a rifle."
But at some point, he told us, a change in degree begins to be seen as a change in kind.
"If the physical abilities of warfighters become too great, it may take great restraint on the part of their commanders and even their peers to see them, not as a killing machine, but as a person — even if they are enhanced."