Ready, fire, aim: putting the subconscious in charge
To this end, a hair-net-type helmet is being developed that will eventually be worn by drone operators. This device – similar to existing gaming headsets such as the NeuroSky MindWave – will monitor the brainwave impulses of drone operators. When neural impulses correspond with target recognition, the headset will instantly harvest this information, override the manual user and automatically fire weapons.
Such a development would have enormous ethical implications. At the moment, ethical responsibility for killing rests with those persons in the chain of command who decide to “pull the trigger”, so to speak. But what will lawyers and moral philosophers make of a decision to kill made unconsciously, by the subconscious mind?
While such debates about the legality and ethical probity of drone warfare might be evolving slowly, the research collaborations required to make such weapons viable are developing far more rapidly.
Last May, the UK’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory collaborated with academic experts in neural-imaging at a conference called Neuroscience, Conflict and Security. The conference chair, Prof Rod Flower, professor of biochemical pharmacology at the William Harvey Research Institute, University of London, said it was the first time the military had worked with academia in neuroscience.
The military “horizon scanning teams” who seek to exploit the defence potential of new and ground-breaking research are keen to extend the use of neural scanning.
In high-pressure environments, the speed of the brain’s subconscious might be harnessed to shoot to kill – providing that vital split-second edge in combat.
Getting a cup of coffee using mind control
Last May, scientists from America’s Brown University in collaboration with the US Department of Veterans Affairs successfully tested a small chip, known as the BrainGate device, to allow a paralysed woman to control a robot by thought alone.
The chip is implanted inside the skull and sits on the surface of the brain near the cerebral cortex. It is capable of detecting and transmitting neural signals generated deep within the cortex.The woman was able to operate a robotic arm by active mind control to bring a beaker to her lips. (A video of the system in action is available at iti.ms/XjHi6O.)
The chip is essentially a neural- interface system that allows human thought to be detected and read as complex electrical or neural patterns. The chip interprets these patterns and converts the signals into orders that can be transmitted to the electronic control systems of assistive technologies, such as communications systems or robots.
Pilots in fighter jets use electronic “slave systems” that allow cameras within the cockpit to direct precision guided munitions on to large numbers of targets. The BrainGate technology would allow “drone” pilots the ability to actively control the slave systems of combat UAVs remotely.
Dr Tom Clonan is the Irish Times Security Analyst. He lectures in the school of media, Dublin Institute of Technology