Ear, eye, brain and muscular enhancement is “technically feasible by 2050 or earlier,” according to a study released this month by the U.S. Army’s Combat Capabilities Development Command.
The demand for cyborg-style capabilities will be driven in part by the civilian healthcare market, which will acclimate people to an industry fraught with ethical, legal and social challenges, according to Defense Department researchers.
Implementing the technology across the military, however, will likely run up against the dystopian narratives found in science fiction, among other issues, the researchers added.
The report — entitled “Cyborg Soldier 2050: Human/Machine Fusion and the Implications for the Future of the DOD” — is the result of a year-long assessment.
It was written by a study group from the DoD Biotechnologies for Health and Human Performance Council, which is tasked to look at the ripple effects of military biotechnology.
The team identified four capabilities as technically feasible by 2050:
- ocular enhancements to imaging, sight and situational awareness;
- restoration and programmed muscular control through an optogenetic bodysuit sensor web;
- auditory enhancement for communication and protection; and
- direct neural enhancement of the human brain for two-way data transfer.
The study group suggested that direct neural enhancements in particular could revolutionize combat.
“This technology is predicted to facilitate read/write capability between humans and machines and between humans through brain-to-brain interactions,” an executive summary reads. “These interactions would allow warfighters direct communication with unmanned and autonomous systems, as well as with other humans, to optimize command and control systems and operations.”
Cyborg technologies are likely to be used among civil society as well over the next 30 years, the researchers noted.
Development of these capabilities will probably “be driven by civilian demand” and “a robust bio-economy that is at its earliest stages of development in today’s global market," the group wrote.
But it’s after the year 2050 that the implications of cyborg capabilities become concerning.
"Introduction of augmented human beings into the general population, DoD active-duty personnel, and near-peer competitors will accelerate in the years following 2050 and will lead to imbalances, inequalities, and inequities in established legal, security, and ethical frameworks,” the summary reads.
The study group proposed seven recommendations, listed in no particular order, for Pentagon leaders to consider:
- The military should take a second look at the global and societal perception of human-machine augmentation. Americans typically imagine China or Russia developing runaway technologies because of a lack of ethical concerns, but “the attitudes of our adversaries toward these technologies have never been verified," researchers wrote.
- U.S. political leaders should use forums like NATO to discuss how cyborg advancements could impact interoperability between allied forces during operations.
- The Pentagon should start investing in legal, security and ethical frameworks to anticipate emerging technologies and better prepare for their impact. Leaders should support policies that “protect individual privacy, sustain security, and manage personal and organizational risk, while maximizing defined benefits to the United States and its allies and assets,” the study group wrote.
- Military leaders should also work to reverse the “negative cultural narratives of enhancement technologies.” It’s no secret that science fiction’s depiction of cyborg technologies revolves around dystopian futures. Transparency in how the military adopts this technology will help to alleviate concerns, while capitalizing on benefits, according to the study group.
- The Pentagon should use wargames to gauge the impact of asymmetric biotechnologies on tactics, techniques and procedures. DoD personnel can support this through targeted intelligence assessments of the emerging field.
- A whole-of-nation, not whole-of-government, approach to cyborg technologies is preferred. As it stands, “federal and commercial investments in these areas are uncoordinated and are being outpaced by Chinese research and development,” the study group wrote. If Chinese firms dominate the commercial sector, the U.S. defense sector will also be at a disadvantage.
- Finally, the long-term safety concerns and the impact of these technologies on people should be monitored closely.
“The benefits afforded by human/machine fusions will be significant and will have positive quality-of-life impacts on humankind through the restoration of any functionality lost due to illness or injury,” the study group wrote.
But as these technologies evolve, “it is vital that the scientific and engineering communities move cautiously to maximize their potential and focus on the safety of our society," the study group added.
Kyle Rempfer is an editor and reporter whose investigations have covered combat operations, criminal cases, foreign military assistance and training accidents. Before entering journalism, Kyle served in U.S. Air Force Special Tactics and deployed in 2014 to Paktika Province, Afghanistan, and Baghdad, Iraq.