In 2006, noted bioethicist Professor Jonathan Moreno published a book all about neuroscience and brain research by the Department of Defense and associated academic and private researchers. It was provocative, informative, and unsettling. In other words, it was one hell of a scary – and fascinating – book.
Six years later, Moreno, Professor of Medical Ethics and Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania, has updated the book and released a second revised edition, Mind Wars: Brain Science and the Military in the 21st Century. The book is substantively the same as the earlier version, but updated in a number of places. For all of Moreno’s hopeful words about the military listening more to bioethicists these days, the totality of the work remains frightening in its implications.
Some of the updated material is purely factual. For instance, in the 2006 edition of Mind Wars, Moreno wrote, “The official research and development budget for the Department of Defense is around $68 billion…. Assuming the proportion of R&D to operations in the secret budget is about the same as it is in the Pentagon budget, black R&D funds would be in the neighborhood of at least $6 billion.”
Of course, those numbers were “highly speculative,” but in the new edition, Moreno has updated the figures. Now the official R&D budget for DoD is around $80 billion, while the black or secret R&D budget is estimated at $8 billion. That’s approximately a 17 percent hike in DoD R&D funds in general, but a 33 percent increase in the black, secret budget in just six years.
Moreno’s book is certainly timely, as military research into neuroscience and other brain and behavior-related research is certainly taking off. For instance, see this September 19 ExtremeTech article, “DARPA combines human brains and 120-megapixel cameras to create the ultimate military threat detection system.” (Readers will be glad to know Mind Wars has an entire chapter on the history of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.)
Meanwhile Moreno asks the primary question: Is anyone minding the ethical store? Who is addressing the problems and dilemmas of subjugating science to national defense concerns?
Moreno appears to believe many of those involved in military neuroscience research are far more interested in the ethical issues of the research than is the general public. In addition, a good deal of the military-oriented research has peaceful, domestic applications of great value to society, such as the research that has gone into nervous system and machine interfaces that has revolutionized the field of prosthetics and robotics.
But Moreno also cannot help but notice the history of abuse and secrecy that lies behind much of the government’s actions in areas of research that touch on brain and behavior. Much of the tension in the book rises from this dual use conundrum.
Take the case of prosthetics mentioned above. Moreno notes that the DARPA “Revolutionizing Prosthetics” program is working on a “neutrally controlled robotic arm ‘that has function almost identical to a natural limb in terms of motor control and dexterity, sensory feedback… weight, and environmental resilience.” The research has had some tremendous recent successes, including the movement of “DARPA funded mechanical arms… via the brain signals of a volunteer with tetraplegia.”
Yet, Moreno also posits a “science fiction scenario” right out of the otherwise maligned Star Wars films by George Lucas: “an army of robots capable of movement nearly as precise as that of a human soldier, each controlled by an individual hundreds or even thousands of miles away.”
Imagine these robots could respond almost instantaneously with or even anticipate the intentions of their distant human operators. “Clone wars” indeed! But according to Moreno, “some of the technical requirements for the soldier-extender robot army are, literally, within reach.”
But the military is not waiting for the coming robot wars. Another section of the book concerns other research into changing the cognitive abilities of the Army’s all-too-human soldiers. One of the more controversial research programs concerns the use of drugs like propranolol to forestall the production of PTSD symptoms in soldiers traumatized by the barbarity of battle.
While finding a cure or sure treatment to stop or prevent PTSD is the Holy Grail for some researchers, there are moral and philosophical questions behind such purported medical interventions or treatments. And that’s what bioethics is for, to look at such questions, to try and get scientists and policy makers to look before they leap into the breach with such technology.
Moreno describes these dilemmas well, making them understandable for lay readers, while not hiding his own opinions, and allowing for airing of opposing positions.
But one wonders in the end whether the positive effects of bioethicist intervention can offset the social, political, economic, and psychological influences shaping national science policy, particularly when it comes to the military. How much have things changed since the National Academy of Sciences stated in a 1942 committee report, “The wide assumption is that any method which appears to offer advantages to a nation at war will be vigorously employed by that nation”?
At times Moreno’s book necessarily ventures into philosophical questions, such as what constitutes Mind? What exactly is the connection between Mind and Brain, and can minds be read by an examination of purely physiological processes, as some of the scientists involved in brain scan research contend?
The book covers a number of different areas of research, including so-called “Augmented Cognition,” “brain fingerprinting,” drugs to undo the effects of sleep deprivation, and the use of “non-lethal” weapons, such as “acoustic and light-pulsing devises that disrupt cognitive and neural processes” and “optical equipment that causes temporary blindness.”
As one can see, some of this technology is “offensive” in nature, and promises to revolutionize not only warfare, but also methods of crowd control; and behind that is the larger game, political control. In pursuing such goals, governmental researchers have too often used human subjects in experiments that were highly unethical and illegal. Moreno reviews them here, too, including MKULTRA, the Cameron “psychic driving” experiments, controversies over “informed consent,” and more recent experiments in torture, up to and including Abu Ghraib.
Moreno has plowed some of this material before. In 2001, he published Undue Risk: Secret State Experiments on Humans, a worthy companion to the current book. He has more than an academic acquaintance with these issues, as during the 1990s he was a member of President Clinton’s Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments.
There is much to talk about and chew over on these very important issues. I welcome Jonathan Moreno to FDL Book Salon.
[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book and be respectful of dissenting opinions. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. - bev]