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.


Scientists: Humans and machines will merge in the future,,,

Scientists: Humans and machines will merge in the future!

By Lara Farrar

July 15, 2008 — Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)

LONDON, England (CNN) — A group of experts from around the world will hold a first of its kind conference on global catastrophic risks.

Some experts say humans will merge with machines before the end of this century.

They will discuss what should be done to prevent these risks from becoming realities that could lead to the end of human life on Earth as we know it.

Speakers at the four-day event at Oxford University in Britain will talk about topics including nuclear terrorism and what to do if a large asteroid were to be on a collision course with our planet.

On the final day of the Global Catastrophic Risk Conference, experts will focus on what could be the unintended consequences of new technologies, such as superintelligent machines that, if ill-conceived, might cause the demise of Homo sapiens.

“Any entity which is radically smarter than human beings would also be very powerful,” said Dr. Nick Bostrom, director of Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute, host of the symposium. “If we get something wrong, you could imagine the consequences would involve the extinction of the human species.”

Bostrom is a philosopher and a leading thinker of transhumanism, a movement that advocates not only the study of the potential threats and promises that future technologies could pose to human life but also the ways in which emergent technologies could be used to make the very act of living better.

“We want to preserve the best of what it is to be human and maybe even amplify that,” Bostrom said.

Transhumanists, according to Bostrom, anticipate an era in which biotechnology, molecular nanotechnologies, artificial intelligence and other new types of cognitive tools will be used to amplify our intellectual capacity, improve our physical capabilities and even enhance our emotional well-being.

The end result would be a new form of “posthuman” life with beings that possess qualities and skills so exceedingly advanced they no longer can be classified simply as humans.

“We will begin to use science and technology not just to manage the world around us but to manage our own human biology as well,” Bostrom said. “The changes will be faster and more profound than the very, very slow changes that would occur over tens of thousands of years as a result of natural selection and biological evolution.”

Bostrom declined to predict an exact time frame when this revolutionary biotechnological metamorphosis might occur. “Maybe it will take eight years or 200 years,” he said. “It is very hard to predict.”

Other experts are already getting ready for what they say could be a radical transformation of the human race in as little as two decades.

“This will happen faster than people realize,” said Dr. Ray Kurzweil, an inventor and futurist who calculates technology trends using what he calls the law of accelerating returns, a mathematical concept that measures the exponential growth of technological evolution.

In the 1980s, Kurzweil predicted that a tiny handheld device would be invented early in the 21st century, allowing blind people to read documents from anywhere at anytime; this year, such a device was publicly unveiled. He also anticipated the explosive growth of the Internet in the 1990s.

Now, Kurzweil is predicting the arrival of something called the Singularity, which he defines in his book on the subject as “the culmination of the merger of our biological thinking and existence with our technology, resulting in a world that is still human but that transcends our biological roots.”

“There will be no distinction, post-Singularity, between human and machine or between physical and virtual reality,” he writes.

Singularity will approach at an accelerating rate as human-created technologies become exponentially smaller and increasingly powerful and as fields such as biology and medicine are understood more and more in terms of information processes that can be simulated with computers.

By the 2030s, Kurzweil said, humans will become more non-biological than biological, capable of uploading our minds onto the Internet, living in various virtual worlds and even avoiding aging and evading death.

In the 2040s, Kurzweil predicts that non-biological intelligence will be billions of times better than the biological intelligence humans have today, possibly rendering our present brains obsolete.

“Our brains are a million times slower than electronics,” Kurzweil said. “We will increasingly become software entities if you go out enough decades.”

This movement towards the merger of man and machine, according to Kurzweil, is already starting to happen and is most visible in the field of biotechnology.

As scientists gain deeper insights into the genetic processes that underlie life, they are able to effectively reprogram human biology through the development of new forms of gene therapies and medications capable of turning on or off enzymes and RNA interference, or gene silencing.

“Biology and health and medicine used to be hit or miss,” Kurzweil sad. “It wasn’t based on any coherent theory about how it works.”

The emerging biotechnology revolution will lead to at least a thousand new drugs that could do anything from slow down the process of aging to reverse the onset of diseases, like heart disease and cancer, Kurzweil said.

By 2020, Kurzweil predicts a second revolution in the area of nanotechnology. According to his calculations, it is already showing signs of exponential growth as scientists begin to test first generation nanobots that can cure Type 1 diabetes in rats or heal spinal cord injuries in mice.

One scientist is developing something called a respirocyte, a robotic red blood cell that, if injected into the bloodstream, would allow humans to do an Olympic sprint for 15 minutes without taking a breath or sit at the bottom of a swimming pool for hours at a time.

Other researchers are developing nanoparticles that can locate tumors and one day even eradicate them.

And some Parkinson’s patients now have pea-sized computers implanted in their brains that replace neurons destroyed by the disease; new software can be downloaded to the mini computers from outside the human body.

“Nanotechnology will not just be used to reprogram but to transcend biology and go beyond its limitations by merging with non-biological systems,” Kurzweil said. “If we rebuild biological systems with nanotechnology, we can go beyond its limits.”

The final revolution leading to the advent of Singularity will be the creation of artificial intelligence, or superintelligence, which, according to Kurzweil, could be capable of solving many of our biggest threats, like environmental destruction, poverty and disease.

“A more intelligent process will inherently outcompete one that is less intelligent, making intelligence the most powerful force in the universe,” Kurzweil writes.

Yet the invention of so many high-powered technologies and the possibility of merging these new technologies with humans may pose both peril and promise for the future of mankind.

“I think there are grave dangers,” Kurzweil said. “Technology has always been a double-edged sword.”


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