How Neuroscience Might Define A New Age Of Warfare

In what sounds only fit for the pages of a high-concept Tom Clancy novel, experts have speculated on what shape the future of military conflict might take if current advances in neuroscience continue to break new ground. Experts revealed how it might be possible to direct energy weapons that use wave beams to cause pain and distress to its target, pilot drone aircraft directly with the human brain, or use ‘electrical brain stimulation’ to boost a solider’s combat abilities. They also divulged how advances made in neuroimaging could potentially be used by military recruitment officers to ‘screen’ hopefuls with only the most desirable of attributes.

The report was conducted by the Royal Society, the UK’s national academy of science. It was the collaborative work of experts in neuroscience, international security, psychology and, perhaps most importantly, ethics. Concerns will no doubt be raised about the possible harmful implications wielding such a power could potentially have, the report itself details how neuroscientists on the cutting edge of science “have a responsibility to be aware…that knowledge and technologies used for beneficial purposes can also be misused for harmful purposes.”

Rod Flower, a professor of biochemical pharmacology at Queen Mary University of London led the panel and said, “We know neuroscience research has the potential to deliver great social benefit - researchers come closer every day to finding effective treatments for diseases and disorders such as Parkinson's, depression, schizophrenia, epilepsy and addiction. However, understanding of the brain and human behaviour, coupled with development in drug delivery, also highlight ways of degrading human performance that could possible be used in new weapons.”

The report, titled ‘Neuroscience, Conflict and Security’ confided how “neuroscience is a rapidly advancing field encompassing a range of applications and technologies that are likely to provide significant benefits to society, particularly in the treatment of neurological impairment, disease, and psychiatric illness. However, this new knowledge also suggests a number of potential military and law enforcement applications.” It then went on to highlight how potential applications on the battlefield, as it were, would fall into one of two areas; ‘performance enhancing’ (e.g. “optimising recruitment, training and operational performance or improving treatments for rehabilitation”) and ‘performance degrading’ (e.g. “through the development of weapons such as incapacitating chemicals”).

Though the report should be seen more as a conceptual ideas of the potential applications of neuroscience in future warfare – one of the report's-own author's, Irene Tracy, an expert in brain imaging from Oxford University, describes some of it as “the stuff of dreams” - the very fact scientists are researching the possibilities of such technology at this stage is fascinating.

Source: Royal Society