New microscopic brain computers may help soldiers in unprecedented ways but face ethical objections over bodily autonomy.
Research on brain-computer interfaces (BCI) – devices that decode and transmit brain signals to an external device to carry out a desired action – has advanced significantly in recent years, reports The Conversation. In other words, a BCI user could do things just by thinking about them.
BCIs are currently being tested among those who have lost most of their motor control, like patients with severe neuromuscular disorders, to help them recover daily functions like communication and mobility. Examples include using BCIs to turn a light on and off or type on a computer screen.
But researchers have also explored the use of BCIs in soldiers on the battlefield. They could be used to suppress negative emotions or even directly control other’s behavior.
“With training, the soldier could then control weapon systems thousands of miles away using their thoughts alone. Embedding a similar type of computer in a soldier’s brain could suppress their fear and anxiety, allowing them to carry out combat missions more efficiently,” writes Beth Daley, editor and general manager at The Conversation.
She adds, “Going one step further, a device equipped with an artificial intelligence system could directly control a soldier’s behavior by predicting what options they would choose in their current situation.”
But the ethics of non-medical uses of BCIs is up for debate. Some argue for a utilitarian approach – anything that maximizes the happiness or well-being of the most people is permitted. For example, enhancing soldiers can be justified like other performance enhancers, like caffeine, if they help keep the country safer.
The “neurorights” perspective instead focuses on ethical values regarding a human’s capacity to think, like self-identity and privacy, over overall well-being.
A third, the “human capability” approach, which expands the neurorights stance to emotional and social health.
SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk co-founded Neuralink, a company committed to developing a brain implant for healthy people.
The U.S. military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects launched a program to develop BCIs for service members. Launched in 2018, its goal is to have them ready for national security applications by 2050.