THE news that the US army is studyinghow neuroscience can “improve” its soldierswill once again raise the spectre of amoralscientists using any means at their disposal –drugs, genetic profiling, brain stimulation,cybernetic implants, brainwashing – tovault ethical boundaries in the pursuit of military aims.The army-backed report from the USNational Academies of Sciences anticipates aday when troops will be monitored bybiosensors, selected by gene tests, stimulatedwith magnetic tweaks to the brain andenhanced with pills (see page 6). This willinevitably spark discussions about the rise of cold-eyed super-soldiers who kill withoutemotion, and we should certainly be vigilantabout the potential for “enhancement” todehumanise troops, let alone the widerimplications of this work for civilian life.But by the same token, “improving” soldiersis about more than making them efficient andlethal. The depressingly routine atrocitiescommitted by servicemen are the result of confusion, exhaustion, and the trauma of seeing comrades killed by bullet, booby trapand bloody dismemberment. These are
Is this thedawn of thesuper-soldier?
soldiers in extreme circumstances equippedwith extreme weaponry and driven toviolence by violence. Or they may be veteransreturning from duty to hurt their family ortake their own lives. How much better if science could ensure that recruits think clearlyand calmly under extraordinary pressure.After all, modern armies exist because of a need to prevent and control violence:soldiers are trained to use force only in well-prescribed situations, and are subject to therules of war and military law.That doesn’t mean there is no dangerof neurotechnologies being abused by themilitary. There is a tradition of drivingwarriors berserk with drugs, alcohol andmagic mushrooms. Governments shouldthink long and hard about the ethics of engaging in such research. A
-stylesoldier would be a liability, not an asset.But let’s not lose sight of the potential forscience to rid armies of the trigger-happy, thevengeful and the deranged. Remember thatthe greatest challenge that forces face todayis avoiding the use of violence unlessabsolutely necessary.Nor should we forget how research canintervene in the war that rages off thebattlefield. Veterans there are crippled bymental health problems, from stress disordersto depression to self-medication with drugsand alcohol. It would be a crime not to useneuroscience to cut this toll of suffering, if we possibly can.
What if science could ensurethat recruits always think clearlyand calmly under pressure
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flu is still spreading. In North America,the number of cases may have passed the100,000 mark; and cases in Japan may tip usinto a pandemic. Yet Europe claims it doesn’thave evidence of “sustained transmission”of the virus.That’s hardly surprising, as Europe isn’tdoing the relevant tests (see page 10). Dogovernments fear that if they discover thevirus is spreading, people with sniffles willswallow antivirals unnecessarily and spawna drug-resistant strain? Whatever the reason,mad cows taught the UK that refusing to see –and tell – the truth about disease is unwise.If H1N1 is spreading elsewhere, it is unlikelyto peter out in Europe. The authorities havehad years to draw up pandemic plans. Yet theyappear as ill-prepared to track the spread of this virus as they are to make a vaccine for it.
Ignoring swine fluwon’t make it go awayHoley grail
AT A time when financial black holes loomon all sides, it will be a relief to get a glimpseof the genuine article. Astronomers hope soonto have an image of the giant black hole at theheart of the galaxy (see page 28), so anyone stillsceptical of the existence of these gravitationalmonsters should make the most of the next fewmonths. It may be your last chance to doubt.Unless, of course, the thing fails to show up.To find that the only real black holes are of thefinancial kind would be doubly depressing.
“‘Improving’ soldiers is aboutmuch more than making themefficient and lethal”
23 May 2009 | NewScientist |
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