Neuroscience—and the weapons of the mind

Neuroscience—and the weapons of the mind

By Robert Bruner, Filippa Lentzos

While MKULTRA is infamous for its attempts to control the mind through hypnosis and phenomena, its researchers primarily concentrated on the use of pharmaceuticals and mind-bending drugs such as hallucinogenic mushrooms, marijuana, heroin, LSD, and truth serums to make intelligence targets more cooperative in questioning and more willing to act as agents of the United States. Ultimately, the project failed because of a lack of scientific understanding of the inner workings of the brain and how to manipulate it.

But today, neuroscience appears to be breaking down previous technical barriers to the exogenous control of emotion, behavior, and ultimately the mind.

Scientific breakthroughs in the understanding of the biological basis of behavior and cognition have given rise to numerous treatments for neurological and psychiatric disorders. These treatments have improved the quality of life for many people all over the world. But these technologies have dual-use potential.

Psychiatric drugs and brain stimulation stand out as neurotechnologies of particular concern. But what are the on-the-ground realities of these technologies—what is the potential for converting clinical uses of behavioral neuroscience to the battlefield? Is it technically possible to alter brain chemistry in order to introduce novel emotions, cause cognitive shifts, and affect behavior? YES…

Dr. James Giordano, Chief of the Neuroethics Studies Program and Scholar-in-Residence in the Pellegrino Center for Clinical Bioethics at Georgetown University, speaks to cadets and faculty about how advancements in neuroscience and neurotechnology will impact the future of war. This event was hosted by the Modern War Institute at West Point.


If mass-produced, weaponized, and spread further afield, the same drugs that show promise as substitutes for psychological torture could be used as neurochemical weapons that alter the emotions of a nation’s armed forces, or that quickly change hearts and minds within a civilian population by influencing the visceral reaction to a military campaign. The most threatening neurochemical weapons—and the most likely to be used—are hypnotic drugs that reduce alertness, sedate, and anaesthetize. Psychedelic drugs, however, which alter cognition, emotion, and behavior, also have potential for battlefield deployment because of their ability to disorient and simulate psychosis. Numerous microbes and toxins that target the nervous system also have potential to affect decisions about whether to fight or surrender and could significantly impede adversarial soldiers.

Mind control back in vogue!

Make no mistake, neuroscience can be misused to alter emotions or memories, covertly implant ideas, or cause cognitive shifts. However, significant technical challenges remain—again, operationalizing neuroweapons is extremely difficult. Yet while it is unlikely that promises of mind control will be realized by neuroweapons, it would be naïve to assume that approaches to behavioral control will not become more refined over time. Obstacles to behavioral control also present themselves to psychiatrists treating disease and, as better psychiatric treatments continue to be pursued, barriers to the malignant use of neuroscience will lower. Neuroscience can be weaponized and deployed by actors willing to expend the time, money, and resources necessary.

International humanitarian and armament law represent crucially important components in governing the development and use of neuroweapons. On the surface, these legal standards prohibit neuroweapons. Their strength, however, has been weakened by ambiguities and by the defiance of state actors. For instance, because international bodies had failed to provide guidance about which specific actions constituted torture, the Bush administration was able to argue that its “enhanced interrogations” of Guantánamo Bay prisoners did not meet the severity threshold of pain or mental injury required by international law—and thus could not be considered torture under existing treaties. In the context of state attempts at behavioral control, arguments similar to those of the Bush administration could be used to explain away the use of pharmaceuticals or neurotechnology that malevolently altered the inner workings of the brain. The prohibition of neurochemical weapons under armament law is much stronger, but here too, loopholes and ambiguities exist. Chemical weapons intended for riot control are not prohibited under the Chemical Weapons Convention, for instance; this provides space for states to legally develop incapacitating weapons under the guise of developing a domestic riot control agent, and then rapidly convert neurochemical weapons for use in conflict.

Another challenge to the governance framework is the possibility that, as the technologies described here become more developed, perceptions of their utility may shift—just as barriers to the development and use of biological weapons are decreasing. For example, some observers argue that not only are drugs permissible if (by simulating a state of euphoria and positive emotions) they make a person talk, but that they are a morally superior substitute for torture and “enhanced interrogation.” The allure of behavioral-control capability could change nations’ existing sociopolitical calculations about the utility of neuroscience-based weapons and drive further military and intelligence development of neuroweapons. Troublingly, these shifting perceptions—matched with increasing geopolitical turbulence and a shift away from state-centric conflict—could make behavioral control seem ever more tempting.

An increasingly multipolar world is emerging—one in which rising powers view human rights, justice, transparency, and the use of force differently. Therefore, challenges to humanitarian and armament law will only increase. To monitor the conversion of behavioral neuroscience from benign medical treatments into malignant weapons, and to shape how neuroweapons may be perceived and used, the international community must attach the utmost importance to strengthening the normative and legal framework that is embodied in multilateral treaties and national laws and regulations. The medical standards that doctors and scientists are obliged to uphold, as well as codes of practice and research ethics, must also be strengthened in view of the potential misuse of behavioral neuroscience. The containment of neuroweapons relies on the strength of norms—from the top down and from the bottom up—against the use of torture, unconventional weapons, and the militant use of neuroscience. Both scientists and the international community must remain vigilant about preventing behavioral neuroscience from leaking into the security realm.

Biotechnology and Human Augmentation

Mick Ryan and Therese Keane

Over the last decade, military theorists and authors in the fields of future warfare and strategy have examined in detail the potential impacts of an ongoing revolution in information technology. There has been a particular focus on the impacts of automation and artificial intelligence on military and national security affairs. This attention on silicon-based disruption has nonetheless meant that sufficient attention may not have been paid to other equally profound technological developments. One of those developments is the field of biotechnology.

There have been some breathtaking achievements in the biological realm over the last decade. Human genome sequencing has progressed from a multi-year and multi-billion dollar undertaking to a much cheaper and quicker process, far outstripping Moore’s Law. Just as those concerned with national security affairs must monitor disruptive silicon-based technologies, leaders must also be literate in the key biological issues likely to impact the future security of nations. One of the most significant matters in biotechnology is that of human augmentation and whether nations should augment military personnel to stay at the leading edge of capability.

Biotechnology and Human Augmentation

Military institutions will continue to seek competitive advantage over potential adversaries. While this is most obvious in the procurement of advanced platforms, human biotechnological advancement is gaining more attention. As a 2017 CSIS report on the Third Offset found most new technological advances will provide only a temporary advantage, assessed to be no more than five years. In this environment, some military institutions may view the newer field of human augmentation as a more significant source of a future competitive edge.

Biological enhancement of human performance has existed for millenia. The discovery of naturally occurring compounds by our ancestors has led to many of the cognitive and physical enhancements currently available. In the contemporary environment, for example, competition in national and international sports continues to fuel a race between creation of the next generation of performance enhancements and regulatory bodies developing detection methods. One example of this is the use of gene doping to hone the competitive edge in athletes, an off-label use of gene therapies originally developed for the treatment of debilitating genetic and acquired diseases. Despite the possibility of cancer and a range of other lethal side effects, some athletes consider these an acceptable risk. Might this not translate to adversaries adopting any possible advantage without equal disregard for ethics and safety considerations?

Gene Doping (Ralf Hiemisch)

It cannot be safely be assumed all states will share  the same ethical, moral, legal, or policy principals as Western democratic societies. Based on developmental trajectories to date, contemporary military institutions should anticipate that all forms of human enhancements, whether relatively benign or highly controversial, will continue to evolve. For contemporary strategic leaders, the key is to anticipate how these developments may potentially impact on military institutions.

Impacts on Military Institutions

Theoretically, future advances in biotechnology may permit the augmentation of cognitive performance. However, given the challenges of biocompatibility of silicon, significant enhancements to human performance in the near future are likely to be found in prosthetics, wearable computing, or human teaming with artificial intelligence. In the longer term, some forms of gene therapy may obviate the need for implants. Noting this, a selection of likely challenges are explored below.

Previously, integration of new groups into the military  dealt with human beings.

A first order issue will be group cohesion. Military institutions have deep experience integrating newcomers into their ranks. Fundamental to effective future teaming will be evolving this approach to establish trust and group cohesion between normal humans and those who are augmented. The degree to which military leaders can and should trust augmented personnel to make decisions about saving and taking lives is likely to be an evolutionary process. It also remains to be seen whether or not teams comprised of augmented and non-augmented humans are capable of developing trust. Experimentation and trials are needed to establish whether augmented people will bias away from decisions and input from non-augmented people and vice versa. While institutions can learn from historical integration challenges, there is one essential difference with augmented humans. Previously, integration of new groups into the military  dealt with human beings. If augmentation using neurotechnology significantly enhances cognitive function, this may represent a separate and distinct group of future Homo sapiens.

The second challenge will be accessibility. Military institutions will need to decide what proportion of its forces will be augmented. Given that early generations of this biotechnology may be expensive, it is unlikely an entire military institution can be augmented. If so, who will be augmented and why? Military institutions will need to develop a value proposition to ensure physical and cognitive augmentation produces superior outcomes to the use of un-augmented personnel. Yet another question to ask is whether military personnel will be de-augmented on leaving the service. The transition of augmented personnel into a largely unaugmented populace may be traumatic for military personnel, and for society more broadly. Even more severe in its repercussions may be transitioning de-augmented personnel into a populace where augmentation is ubiquitous.

The Role of Humans in the Age of Robots (The Luvo)

The third challenge will be conceptual. One Chinese scientist, writing in 2006, has proposed military biotechnology offers the chance to shift to a “new balance between defence and attack, giving rise to a new concept of warfare, a new balance of military force, and new attacking power.” While the emphasis of this particular article was on a more merciful form of warfare—about which we should be skeptical—it nonetheless highlights the requirement to rethink what biotechnology and human augmentation means for how military institutions develop warfighting concepts. When humans arrive with cognitive enhancement, a range of tactical, operational, and strategic concepts may become irrelevant. Strategic thinking, using a combination of biological and silicon-based technologies could take organisations in very different directions than is presently the case. It also bears examining whether those with augmentation will enable greater diversity of performance (particularly in the intellectual realm) or if it will lead to increased homogenisation of physical and cognitive performance.

The fourth challenge is obsolescence. A fundamental challenge for humans waging war is that, despite technological advances, one of the weakest links is the physical capacity of the human. As Patrick Lin was written, technology makes up for our absurd frailty. Therefore, might normal humans without augmentation become irrelevant in a new construct where military institutions possess large numbers of physically and cognitively augmented personnel? It remains to be seen whether unaugmented humans might able to compete with physically and cognitively augmented military personnel. The augmentation of humans for different physical and cognitive functions may also drive change in how military institutions operate, plan, and think strategically.

A fifth challenge is military education and training. Traditional military training emphases the teaching of humans to achieve learning outcomes and missions as individuals and teams. In an integrated augmented/non-augmented institution, training methods must evolve to account for the different and improved capabilities of augmented personnel and to blend the capabilities of augmented and non-augmented personnel. Similarly, education for military leaders currently seeks to achieve their intellectual development in the art and science of war. If humans augmented with cognitive enhancements are present, both institutional and individual professional military education will also need to evolve. Learning delivery, as well as key learning outcomes, will have to be re-examined to account for the enhanced physical and cognitive performance of this new segment of the military workforce. Even issues as basic as fitness assessments must be re-examined. Potentially, military organisations could drop physical assessments by automatically augmenting people to the institutionally desired level of performance.

The sixth challenge is one of choice. Command structures demand a reduction in an individual’s free will to refuse such that informed consent is not quite the same as for the general population. And when experimental augmentation options progress to become approved interventions, can we equate a parent considering whether to choose an approved cognitive augmentation option for their child to a soldier contemplating the same when operating alongside augmented peers where the stakes are orders of magnitude greater? How much choice will military personnel have in the augmentation process? Will this be on a volunteer basis or by direction, and what are the moral, legal, and ethical implications of these stances? Speculation that augmentation may become mandatory for some professions may also apply to the military.

The final issue addressed in this article is one of ethics. Research communities are grappling with the ethical and moral implications of augmentation for society as a whole. While the first concern in evaluating the military applications of biotechnology is international humanitarian law, bioethics must also be considered. Ethical considerations pervade almost every aspect of human augmentation, and there are ethical considerations threaded through the other challenges raised in this article. For example, beyond the first order questions of whether we should augment soldiers are issues such as how much augmentation should be allowable. Military institutions should also assess the cumulative effects of multiple augmentations and the consequences of converging augmentation. There may also be a point at which a highly augmented human may cross the human-machine barrier, as well as a range of unanticipated capabilities that emerge from different augmentation combinations.

A Way Ahead

These issues must be informed by those within the biotechnology community, but they alone cannot solve them. Broader involvement by senior military, government, and community leaders is required. One expert in biotechnology has written that “clearly the new forms of power being unleashed by bio-technology will have to be harnessed and used with greater wisdom than power has been used in the past.” If military institutions are to demonstrate wisdom in their investments in biotechnology, they must explore societal impacts as well as effects within military institutions.

“Splitting humankind into biological castes will destroy the foundations of liberal ideology. Liberalism still presupposes that all human beings have equal value and authority.”

It is likely some augmentation will be—at least initially—expensive.  It may be beyond the means of most people in society and, potentially, many government and corporate institutions. If only military personnel might be augmented, what are the impacts on civil-military relationships, and who would make this decision? In this construct, it could be unethical to deny the benefits of augmentation to wider society. However as Yuval Harari has noted, this may see a differentiation in how society views augmented and non-augmented people—“Splitting humankind into biological castes will destroy the foundations of liberal ideology. Liberalism still presupposes that all human beings have equal value and authority.” In Western democracies, this poses profound questions about conferred advantage, societal sense of fairness and equality, and the value of individuals within society.

In Western democratic systems, development of regulation, policy, and legal frameworks is not keeping pace with the current tempo of complicated technological advancements. It cannot be assumed other states are allowing these deficits to slow their efforts in biotechnology, not to mention the unregulated efforts of non-state actors. While the focus of the fourth industrial revolution remains predominantly on technologies, perhaps for Australia (and other democracies) it is also these areas which require a complementary revolution in the Whole of Nation enterprise so as to keep up with the pace of change and facilitate systematic assessment of human augmentation implications.


The potential to augment the physical and cognitive capacity of humans is seductive. There will be some who will not demonstrate responsible behaviour in taking advantage of these new technologies. Humans have demonstrated in the past the capacity to responsibly manage disruptive technologies such as flight, atomic weapons, and space-based capabilities. This means thoughtful academics, national security practitioners, and people from wider society must be part of the discussion on why and how biotechnology might be used in future. It is vital for the future of global security, and for the human race, that mechanisms for responsible ethical and legal use of biotechnology are considered and developed. This must occur in parallel with the scientific endeavours to develop new biotechnologies.

Mick Ryan is an Australian Army officer, and Commander of the Australian Defence College in Canberra, Australia. A distinguished graduate of Johns Hopkins University and the USMC Staff College and School of Advanced Warfare, he is a passionate advocate of professional education and lifelong learning. Therese Keane is a scientist with the Defence Science and Technology Group. Although with a background in mathematics now expanding into biotechnology. The views expressed are the authors’ and do not reflect the official position of the Australian Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

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