Ready, fire, aim: putting the subconscious in charge


Over the past decade, the skies have become increasingly patrolled by a growing armada of remote-controlled flying robots or drones. Now plans are afoot by international military to use mind-control techniques to operate and fire these airborne weapon systems.

Since the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York in 2001, some aspects of modern warfare have become increasingly automated. This is especially so in aerial-combat operations.

In September 2001, the US military possessed about 60 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Today, the US Air Force has more than 6,000. These remote-controlled aerial robots now outnumber the fleet of traditional, pilot-operated combat aircraft flown by the US Air Force.

UAVs are flown by “laptop warrior” or drone pilots, who operate the aircraft using wireless technology from darkened, air-conditioned cubicles on bases in places such as Las Vegas and Pearl Harbour. Each of these “ground control stations” houses up to 280 personnel who have been trained to pilot a new generation of drone aircraft.

Some drones, such as the General Atomics Warrior, Reaper, Predator and Avenger, are airborne assassins that operate in airspace as far afield as Afghanistan, Pakistan and Africa. Other drones fly reconnaissance missions at extremely high altitude with designs now capable of operating in inner-space or the Earth’s exo-atmospheric zone.

While these drones harvest three-dimensional, high-resolution, high-definition images of the earth’s surface, the information is collated by ground controllers in the US, who direct drones to human targets in international jurisdictions. This target acquisition process has resulted in thousands of extra-judicial killings since 2004.

The New America Foundation estimates that up to 3,000 people have been killed in this manner. As the technology improves, the percentage of non-combatant deaths is believed to have dropped to less than 1 per cent of current totals.

The USAF is training more drone pilots than ever before – to the extent that they outnumber traditional pilots completing old-fashioned flight training. They acquire targets by comparing and attempting to match computer images of “high-value” locations and persons “of interest” with real-time images relayed back to them via cameras on their operating drone. When the imagery intelligence matches the target, the drone pilot “locks on” and attacks by remote control.

This can be a time-consuming process and mistakes are made. However, recent research by way of neuro-imaging has shown that certain parts of the brain “light up” when drone pilots correctly identify targets. It has also been shown that such identification often happens at a subconscious level before the operator has the chance to process the information and actively or consciously react.


The neuro-imaging research shows that despite the fatigue associated with scanning images over a long period of time in a darkened cubicle, the brain will automatically correlate matching target profiles at a speed that is too quick for the conscious mind to process. In other words, the final decision to fire on a target might be triggered by the subconscious mind.

By harnessing this sub-conscious matching process that the human brain is capable of, military researchers hope to gain crucial milliseconds in fast-moving combat scenarios.

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

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

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