Posts Tagged ‘super soldier’

Radical human modification is coming, like it or not, by the end of this century—if not earlier. How much are you willing to alter yourself?

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This is my first column on TheAtlantic.com, which will regularly cover the interface between new discoveries in the life sciences and how it impacts people and society — and other random topics.

Last fall at the TEDMED meeting in San Diego I watched a man walk who was paralyzed from the waist down. Injured a year earlier, Paul Thacker hadn’t been able to stand since breaking his back in a snowmobile accident. Yet here he was walking, thanks to an early-stage exoskeleton device attached to his legs.

This wasn’t exactly on the level of “exos” we’ve seen in sci-fi films like Avatar and Aliens, which enable people to run faster, carry heavier loads, and smash things better. But Thacker’s device, called eLEGS — manufactured by Ekso Bionics in Berkeley, California — is one harbinger of what’s coming in the next decade or two to treat the injured and the ill with radical new technologies.

Other portents include first-generation machines and treatments that range from deep brain implants that can stop epileptic seizures to stem cells that scientists are using experimentally to repair damaged retinas.

No one would deny that these technologies, should they fulfill their promise, are anything but miraculous for Paul Thacker and others who need them. Yet none of this technology is going to remain exclusively in the realm of pure therapeutics. Even now some are breaking through the barrier between remedies for the sick and enhancements for the healthy.

Take the drug Adderall. A highly addictive pharmaceutical prescribed for patients with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), the drug works as a stimulant in people without ADHD — and is now used by at least one out of five college students to bump up their energy and attention when they want to perform well on tests or pull all-nighters.

Saying that college students are popping pills is like Claude Rains in Casablanca saying to Humphrey Bogart: “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here.” Yet the widespread use — and acceptance — of Adderall and other stimulants by students to enhance their academic performance is bumping up against something new. It’s pushing us into a realm where taking powerful pharmaceuticals that boost, say, attention or memory is becoming acceptable beyond pure recreation.

Can we be too far from a greater acceptance of surgically implanted devices that increase our ability to hear or see? Or new legs that allow us to run like cheetahs and scramble up walls like geckos?

Or that allow us to run in the Olympics like Oscar Pistorius, the South African sprinter who may qualify for the games in London this year despite missing his lower legs? He runs using two sleek, metallic “legs” that combine with his natural speed and skill to do far more than overcome a disability.

Which leads us to the crucial question for the approaching age of human enhancement: How far would you go to modify yourself using the latest medtech?

Would you replace perfectly good legs with artificial ones if they made you faster and stronger?

Would you take a daily pill that not only stimulated your brain to help you do your best on a test, but also bumped up your memory?

Would you sign up for a genetic alteration that would make you taller and stronger?

Let’s up the ante and declare that these fixes had no deleterious side effects, and were deemed safe by a newly appointed U.S. Agency for Human Augmentation. Would this change your mind? (As an aside, I’m trying to imagine what the candidates now vying for the Republican nomination for president would say about an Agency for Human Augmentation.)

And what if everyone else at work — or all of the rest of the kids in your child’s class at school — were taking advantage of these enhancements?

Currently, none of these hypothetical modifications would be ethical, and most are illegal. Yet one doesn’t need to spend too much time delving into the world of near-future medtech to understand that each of these possibilities are likely to occur in one form or another in the lifetime of those college kids now swallowing Adderall.

For now, the device attached to Paul Thacker’s legs is clunky. The apparatus is little more than a pair of sophisticated braces with whirring mechanics attached to a computer he wears on his back — which is guided by a technician walking behind him, holding a control box attached to the computer with a wire. But it won’t be too long until this 37-year-old former champion snowmobile jumper will be walking with ease using an advanced exoskeleton.

In a few more years, you might be wearing your own eLEGS to carry heavy loads around the house, or as a soldier on patrol in some distant corner of the world (assuming we aren’t using only drones). Flash forward a few more years, and you may have the option of permanently implanting in your legs the “eLEGS LXII,” an endo-skeletal implant that stays with you like a futuristic hip or knee implant does today.

Back at TEDMED, Paul Thacker wasn’t thinking about anything nearly as grandiose as this. When I asked him what he wishes for most using the new eLEGS technology, he smiled and said something refreshingly mundane considering he is a herald of the future.

“Right now I’d like to be able to stand up and pee,” he said. “I really miss being able to do that.”

Article Source Link: http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2012/02/redesigning-people-how-medtech-could-expand-beyond-the-injured/253236/

JP

 

Guilt, tiredness, stress, shock – can specialised drugs help to mute the qualities that make soldiers human, asks Michael Hanlon?

The ancient Spartans believed that battlefield training began at birth. Those who failed the first round of selection, which took place at the ripe old age of 48 hours, were left at the foot of a mountain to die. The survivors would, in years to come, often wonder if these rejects were the lucky ones. Because to harden them up, putative Spartan warriors were subjected to a vigorous regime involving unending physical violence, severe cold, a lack of sleep and constant sexual abuse.

As with the English public schools, which used similar tactics to produce the warriors who carved out the British Empire, the Spartan regime worked; the alumni were the most feared soldiers in the eastern Mediterranean. And ever since then, military chiefs have wondered whether it may be possible to short-cut the long and demanding Spartan regime to produce a soldier who kills without care or remorse, shows no fear, can fight battle after battle without fatigue and generally behave more like a machine than a man.

In the post-war era, the future of fighting was thought to be about tanks and missiles, large impersonal machines that would fight huge battles over the open terrain of Northern Europe. The soldiers would be pressing buttons in a command centre. But despite the advent of drone aircraft, much of 21st-century warfare is turning out to be a drawn-out, messy business, fought on a human scale in the mud and dust of Afghanistan. And fought against a mercurial army of irregulars who melt away into the fields and farms once the skirmish is over. Modern soldiers are not the cannon fodder of before. Highly trained and super fit, each one represents a huge investment by the nation that sends them into battle. A soldier who is too tired to fight effectively, who has gone mad or who is suffering from severe stress is like a broken-down tank, no use to anybody. What if soldiers could be made that did not break down?

The era of The Terminator, the perfect robotic killing machine, is decades away; to date, all efforts to create a humanoid robot that can climb the stairs, let alone fight the Taliban, have been risible. But scientists are reporting breakthroughs with the next-best thing – the creation of human terminators, who feel less pain, less terror and less fatigue than “non-enhanced” soldiers and whose very bodies may be augmented by powerful machines.

Efforts to understand the brain of the soldier and put this knowledge to good use have been going on for some time. Professor Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at Pennsylvania State University, studies the way neuroscience is being co-opted by the military. “Right now, this is the fastest-growing area of science,” he says.

The Pentagon is currently spending $400m a year researching ways to “enhance” the human fighter. The defence giant Lockheed recently unveiled its “Hulc” (Human Universal Load Carrier), a science fiction-like, battery-powered exoskeleton that allows a human to lift 100kg weights and carry them at a fast run of 16kph (10mph). The videos of the Hulc in action are truly impressive. Superman strength is one thing, but soldiers still need to sleep. In Afghanistan the average soldier in combat gets only four hours’ rest a day and sleep deprivation is the single biggest factor in reducing fighting performance. Not only are tired soldiers less physically able to fight and run, they make more mistakes with the complex weapons systems at their disposal – mistakes that can prove deadly to themselves and their comrades.

Using chemistry to attack fatigue is, of course, nothing new. Two centuries ago, Prussian soldiers used cocaine to remain alert and Inca warriors used coca leaves to stay alert long before that. Since then, nicotine, amphetamines, caffeine and a new class of stimulants including the drug Modafinil have all been used successfully, to the extent that American soldiers can now operate normally even after 48 hours without sleep. Now the chemists are trying to tweak the molecular structure of this drug so that it will switch off the desire for sleep for even longer.

Tiredness is not the only psychological problem faced by soldiers. Combat is immensely stressful and although proper training means that men and women can remain focused while in mortal danger, it is afterwards that problems begin. During the Vietnam War, one in three soldiers was treated for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and in the Second World War a significant proportion of Allied conscripts never fired a shot in anger because of stress and fear before the battle had even begun. Up to now, PTSD has been treated by a mix of psychotherapy and antidepressants – effective techniques but expensive and time-consuming. But as with fatigue there may be a chemical shortcut for PTSD.

The trick is to erase unwanted memories, or at least take away their sting. Professor Roger Pitman, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School in the US, has been experimenting with a drug called propranolol, a “beta blocker” normally used to treat high blood pressure, which he believes can erase the effects of terrifying memories.

Professor Pitman has given the drug to young volunteers who have suffered extreme trauma in, for example, road accidents. Those given placebos suffered nightmares, and remained fearful of the road. When exposed to recordings describing their accidents they suffered typical stress responses – sweating, beating heart, dilated pupils. But those who had been on a course of propranolol showed no response at all. It was as though the trauma had not happened. For a soldier, memory-altering drugs such as this could mean violent combat becoming no more troubling, retrospectively, than a visit to the gym. “The problem is,” Professor Moreno says, “what else are they blocking when they do this? Do we want a generation of veterans who return without guilt?” You may not even need drugs to short-out the unwanted side effects of battle. Dr Albert “Skip” Rizzo, a psychologist from the University of Southern California, has created a “virtual Iraq” video game, in which veterans have been able to re-enact their experiences to release pent-up stress.

Generals not only want stronger, more alert and less stressed soldiers; they want smarter ones, too. One of the most bizarre neuroscience findings in recent years is that by immersing the human brain in a powerful magnetic field, its powers of reasoning and learning are almost magically enhanced.

No one knows exactly how “transcranial magnetic stimulation” (TMS) works, but the Australian neuroscientist Professor Allan Snyder believes that magnetic fields in some way “switch off” the higher levels of mental processing that normally cloud our thoughts, allowing a “pure” form of reasoning to take over.

“Each of us could draw like a professional, do lightning-fast arithmetic,” he says. In fact, some subjects in TMS experiments have acquired (temporarily) similar abilities to the rare “autistic savants”, people who are able to perform astounding arithmetical feats and memorise whole telephone directories (an autistic savant was played by Dustin Hoffman in the film Rain Man).

In 2009, a US Academy of Sciences report concluded that within 20 years we could be using TMS to enhance soldiers’ fighting capabilities. As Professor Moreno says, “there is talk of TMS machines being used on the battlefields within 10 years in vehicles and in 10 years more in helmets.” Why? Being a soldier demands a high level of technical expertise. It is no longer just a case of pointing a gun and shooting. Even combat rifles are now “systems” and mastering battlefield electronics requires a lot of training.

It may seem clear that if you could create a man with no scruples, who feels little pain and no fear, you would have an excellent fighting machine, but this may be a case of be careful what you wish for. We get scared for a reason – to avoid danger to ourselves and others. Fatigue may force us to rest before sustaining damaging injury. Even post-traumatic stress disorder may have a beneficial role. Moral scruples help soldiers to act as an effective team – in battle, troops will always say they are fighting for their mates before Queen and country.

Take away the humanity of the soldiers and there is a danger that the battles and wars we fight will become inhuman as well. Most of all there is, surely, a danger that these techniques, far from producing better soldiers, will actually produce a squad of zoned-out zombies, who will be no match for the determined, driven and highly motivated zealots of the Taliban.

SOURCE ARTICLE LINK:  http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/super-soldiers-the-quest-for-the-ultimate-human-killing-machine-6263279.html

JP