The Atlantic

The Military Is Altering the Limits of Human Performance

Breakthroughs in biometric science mean future troops will fight with weapons that understand them—inside and out.
Source: Teddy Wade

Imagine a group of volunteers, their chests rigged with biophysical sensors, preparing for a mission in a military office building outfitted with cameras and microphones to capture everything they do. “We want to set up a living laboratory where we can actually pervasively sense people, continuously, for a long period of time. The goal is to do our best to quantify the person, the environment, and how the person is behaving in the environment,” Justin Brooks, a scientist at the Army Research Laboratory, or ARL, told me last year.

ARL was launching the Human Variability Project, essentially a military version of the reality-TV show Big Brother without the drama. The Project seeks to turn a wide variety of human biophysical signals into machine-readable data by outfitting humans and their environment with interactive sensors.

The Army is not alone. The Air Force, Marine Corps, Navy, and their special operations forces are also funding research to collect biophysical data from soldiers, sailors, Marines, and pilots. The goal is to improve troops’ performance by understanding what’s happening inside their bodies, down to how their experiences affect them on a genetic level. It’s not exactly genetically engineering soldiers into superhero Captain Americas; the U.S. military insists they have no intention of using biometric data science for anything like the genetic engineering of superior traits. But it’s close. The military is after the next best thing.

If today’s Pentagon leaders get their way, the next generation of fighter jets, body armor, computer systems, and weapons will understand more about the pilots, soldiers, and analysts using them than those operators understand about the machines they are using. The very experience of flying the plane, analyzing satellite images, even firing a gun could change depending on what the weapon, vehicle, or software detects about the person to whom the weapon is bound. To make this dream real, Pentagon-backed researchers are designing an entirely new generation of wearable health monitors that make Silicon Valley’s best consumer fitness gear look quaint. They’re discovering how to detect incredibly slight changes in focus, alertness, health, and stress—and to convey those signals to machines. Design the boots well enough and the super soldier will arrive to fill them.

Army Research Laboratory researchers already monitor individual subjects from six months to two years. Brooks wants to expand that to other military training environments, such as the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., and then to

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