Brave New Warriors

02 Sep 2008, Posted by Steven Kotler in

What if the United States could field an army of superhuman soldiers to fight our wars? It’s an idea at least as old as the Greeks, one made famous in the US by World War II era comic books, in which the government gave art student Steve Rogers massive doses of “Super Soldier Formula,” turning him into the superhero Captain America to help defeat the Nazis.

Now the stuff of comic books is closer than ever to becoming a reality. Ask Mark Jung-Beeman, a cognitive neuroscientist at Northwestern University. He specializes in intuitive problem solving—what researchers like to call “sudden insight” and the rest of us know as “Ah-Ha” moments. Last year he and his Drexel University collaborator, cognitive neuroscientist John Kounios, were asked if they would come to Virginia to present their work at a sort of de-facto symposium on the biology of creativity. What was unusual about this particular inquiry is that it didn’t come from fellow academics or an interested corporation—it came from the Pentagon.

Specifically, from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the arm of the Department of Defense charged with developing new technology for the military. Since its establishment in 1958, DARPA has earned a reputation as the big thinking, pie-in-the-sky, no idea is too weird branch of the government. Along the way, they’ve pioneered things like stealth technology, long-range drone airplanes, and the Internet. DARPA solicited the help of two neuroscientists because, as Kounios puts it, “military personal tend to loose cognitive flexibility during combat.“ The problem is that during the heat of a battle, very little goes according to plan. “When things fall apart,” says Beeman, “is when creativity is most needed. Unfortunately, because of how the brain works, stress makes sudden insight significantly harder. And when stress in a combat situation is at its worst, that’s usually about the time soldiers need this kind of insight to stay alive.”

Enhancing the creativity of soldiers is just one item on the Pentagon wish list. “Gone are the days of big armies,” says Dennis McBride, a former Navy officer and DARPA program manager who now serves as president of the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies. “The battle space of tomorrow will be asymmetrical and urban. The best way to fight under these conditions is with small groups of highly trained soldiers, operating autonomously, for long periods of time, usually without tactical or medical support.“ All of which raises the question: how do you keep warfighters alive under those conditions?

The Pentagon’s stark conclusion is that “the human being is becoming the weakest link in Defense systems.” Its solution is to turn soldiers into superhumans—men and women who don’t sleep and feel no pain, among other powers. Of course, the DOD doesn’t use words like “superhuman,“ instead preferring “warfighter enhancement“, “augmented performance“, or a bevy of other euphemisms. All come down to what the former head of DARPA’s Defense Sciences Office, Michael Goldblatt, meant when he told reporters: “My measure of success is that the International Olympic Committee bans everything we do.”

Of course, the people who run wars are always seeking advantages that would be unfair in a sporting contest. As General Patton once pointed out: “the object of war is not to die for your country, but to make the other bastard die for his.” But in today’s world, the effort to create soldiers who kill and survive with maximum efficiency raises ethical questions about how far the Armed Forces should go toward transforming human beings—if they should be transformed at all. Is laser eye surgery okay? How about potentially risky vaccines? How about changing the very nature of a soldier’s brain? The way we answer these questions, and others like them, could go a long way towards determining the fate of the American military for much of the next century.

Before we address those concerns, it’s helpful to understand the incredible scope of our super soldier dreams. Beyond DARPA, every branch of the military and a host of private companies with government contracts are chasing similar goals.

Among these many passions, arguably nothing is more critical than solving the problem of sleep. Talking about this, in his recent book, Mind Wars: Brain Research and National Defense, University of Virginia bioethicist Jonathon Moreno writes: “A solution to sleep has been a minor-league Holy Grail for war planners since time immemorial.“ To this end, Moreno mentions the Incan warriors penchant for chewing coca leaves, the Bavarian army of the 19th Century snorting cocaine, and the US Air Force giving soldiers “go pills” made from the prescription amphetamine Dexedrine. More recently, Dexedrine—whose side effects of jitters and muddled thinking may have been responsible for the friendly-fire death of four Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan in 2003—has been replaced by the anti-narcolepsy drug modafinil. Sold in the States as Provigil, modafinil produces between 60-80 hours of wakefulness in normal people. College students use it to pull all-nighters and soldiers in Iraq use it by the handfuls. But the technologies now being studied by DARPA go way beyond this kind of traditional pharmacology.

The Preventing Sleep Deprivation program, funded to the tune of $100 million, is exploring everything from the gene code of fruit flies—who can go for incredibly long periods without rest—to the use of ampakines, a novel class of chemicals thought to reverse the effects of sleep deprivation. DARPA scientists have also been utilizing FMRI technology to find the parts of the brain that are used by working memory—and are significantly hampered by a lack of zzzs— and probing the potential of Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation to boost those same circuits. Not to be left out of the fun, the Navy’s Marine Mammal Program, originally set up to train dolphins to do underwater searches, has lately been conducting PET (positron emission tomography) scans on these same animals to try to figure out how they can sleep with only half of their brain at once—a necessity for marine mammals that need to be awake enough to come to the surface and breathe.

Because a state of constant wakefulness burns a tremendous amount of calories and because giving soldiers more stamina has long been sacrosanct to the military, also under investigation are programs aimed at creating what DARPA once called: “the Energizer Bunny in fatigues.” At the University of Oklahoma, veterinarian Mike Davis is examining Alaskan sled dogs capability to run a thousand miles without rest to see if this ability can be transferred to humans. There are investigations into new kinds of performance drinks, attempts to harness the energy of fat cells, gloves and booties that lower fatigue through better thermoregulation, and a half-dozen other variations on this theme.

And while sleep and stamina are important, they are merely the beginning of our new superhero wish list. There’s also a “pain vaccine” meant to provide almost a month’s protection against the sensation of serious injury (now a Rinat Neuroscience drug in the final stages of testing for use in cancer patients); attempts to use things like brain chips and MDNA (otherwise known as the club drug “ecstasy“) to help block the storage of fearful memories and protect soldiers against Post Traumatic Stress Disorder; and, at Iowa’s Agricultural Research Service, USDA scientists are studying pigs ability to digest cellulose so soldiers might be able to tease more calories out of their daily rations or perhaps learn how to digest substances now considered inedible. There’s also considerable interest, says Goldblatt, in technologies that are already making the governing bodies in professional sports nervous.

In 1997, Johns Hopkins geneticist Sie-Jin Lee and NIH geneticist Alexandra McPherron discovered that turning off the protein Myostatin produced a doubling of muscle size in mice. Since then, Lee has been working to develop Myostatin-blockers for treatment of muscle wasting diseases like Muscular Dystrophy and HIV but, like most of the things described in this article, the military is interested in the “dual use“ potential of these blockers. Towards this same end, in July of 2008, the National Research Council released a report entitled “Emerging Cognitive Neuroscience and Related Technologies” which provided a broad overview of the sorts of neurotechnologies (a 120 billion dollars a year business in the US alone) under development globally. As Dennis McBride points out: “There are a lot of places around the world without our same ethical standards—places where they don’t really care what kinds of human and animal experiments are done.” In this kind of world, one country’s innovation can become another country’s weapon with alarming ease.

So the race to build a better soldier is on, but despite all of the DOD’s interest and investment, it’s not just the war planners driving it forward. In the early 90s, when LASIK eye surgery first became available, the Navy started fielding hundreds of requests from Special Forces for the procedure. “And they didn’t just want 20/20 vision,” says McBride, “they wanted 20/10 or the very best that was technologically possible.“ Since that time, the Army has gotten hip to the idea and began offering the procedure free to the grunts, performing over 50,000 LASIK surgeries on troops.

Another manifestation of this same kind of urge is the use of steroids by the troops. In 2005, when Italian police broke up an international drug ring, they found hundreds of packages of Nandrolone being shipped to soldiers in Iraq. “When it’s your life on the line,” says Jonathan Moreno, “soldiers are apt to take anything that gives them a better chance of survival—be that illegally purchased steroids or some other new enhancement technology we may not know enough about.”

Moreno’s fears are well justified, especially because many of the things the DOD is experimenting with fall under the heading of “augmented cognition.” While increasing soldiers’ capacity for learning, memory, and creativity seems a good thing, many of these enhancements will involve altering the brain. Alice Young, a psychologist at Texas Tech and one of the experts involved in the NRC report, believes this is a double-edged sword. “There are all kinds of problems with augmented cognition,” she says. “The brain makes a lot of tradeoffs when it comes to performance. Substances that improve one area might diminish another.“ She points to the use of L-DOPA, a drug that boosts the brain’s production of the neurochemical dopamine, which provides relief for the tremors often faced by patients suffering from Parkinson’s disease. A few years ago, doctors realized that while patients taking L-DOPA were shaking less, many of them had also developed a propensity for compulsive gambling.

To avoid these kinds of unintended consequences, the military has very strict guidelines on whether or not soldiers can be subject to experimental procedures. Unfortunately, those guidelines are not always followed. While Gulf War Syndrome is still not completly eunderstood, a 2005 Research Advisory Committee report on the topic concluded that side-effects from the anthrax vaccine given to our troops was most likely one of the causes. That anthrax vaccine was approved for military use by the FDA, but that approval was supposed to include the soldiers being pre-notified about potential dangers. This pre-notification never took place. “In war,” says Moreno, “the DOD always trumps the FDA, but that is supposed to come with the understanding that the DOD will protect soldiers from risk.” Why weren’t soldiers told? The most common speculation includes DOD arrogance, the necessitiy of compromises during warfare, and fear of a bad public reaction.

PR concerns aren’t just idle worry. Back in 2003, Goldblatt notes, the IOC’s banning of Darphis successes created something of a media feeding frenzy. Soon afterward, the President’s Council of Bioethics began publishing papers decrying the dangers of this kind of human R&D, Congress got involved and Goldblatt and his entire team were drummed out of Washington. Programs with offensive sounding names were given less aggressive monikers (DARPA’s “Metabolically Dominant Soldier” program became “Peak Soldier Performance”).

Perhaps more important are the issues raised by Beeman and Kounios after their trip to Virginia. “We got to DARPA,” recalls Kounios, “and there were about twenty-five other researchers in the room. We were given two minutes to present our research, which was ridiculous in itself, made worse by the fact that a lot of the other presenters knew nothing about creativity. Some of them were offering ideas that directly conflict with what the research already shows.” Some of this can be written off to DARPA’s realization that creativity was a problem to be solved and that this meeting was a fishing expedition into that arena but, as Kounios also says, “there’s a big difference between a fishing expedition and a flailing expedition. What we experienced was pure flailing.”

The reason for the flailing is that the biology underlying this sort of research is a relatively new rabbit hole, and the neuroscience is an ever blacker pit. Very few people involved believe that these technologies should be rushed into use, but given the stakes involved there doesn’t seem to be any real way to slow it down. “If the past is any indication of the future,” says Moreno, “we’ll continue to see new technologies used on soldiers and just like with the anthrax vaccine, the soldiers and society will be left holding the bag.”

Even if we reverse course, deciding that there’s something ethically wrong with turning Steve Rogers into Captain America, there’s little chance anyone else is going to play by our rules. This whole enhancement fuss really began when Cold War era female East German weightlifters started showing up at the Olympics looking like something out of Clan of the Cave Bear. And steroids are but a minor example of the research now going on overseas. Stem cells, with their potential to regenerate limbs, could lead to the Holy Grail of super soldier research. But stem cells are another technology America found ethically troubling and much of the best research now occurs in places that are far away and unhampered by our ethical qualms.

Perhaps an even greater apprehension is that no matter what neuro-ethical decisions are reached by policy makers, because of the dual use nature of these technologies they will be on be on the market anyway. Soldiers will likely be pressured into performance enhancement without regard for the law. Along these lines, critics point to the early LSD research performed on military personnel by both the army and the CIA. James Ketchum was a US Army psychiatrist who participated in the program. In an interview done with USA Today about his 2007 book, Chemical Warfare: Secrets Almost Forgotten, Ketchum says that while the army told soldiers volunteering for this research about the potential dangers of the drugs involved, the CIA ran a parallel program and “sometimes gave hallucinogens secretly to unwitting citizens.”

One thing is certain, all of this research represents not only our military future, but society’s medical and technological future as well. Because of diseases like Alzheimer’s, augmented cognition is a serious growth industry. And, as we have already seen, this is but one example; there are hundreds more. The cyberpunk author William Gibson once wrote “the street finds its own use for things,” and when it comes to new discoveries and warfighter enhancement his statement has never been more true. In the case of super soldiers, it is no longer a question of “if,” it is merely a question of “when.”

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