Militaries are beginning to reimagine what their fighters can be capable of
With the release of Avengers: Endgame in 2019, Marvel successfully captured our attention. The culmination of 21 films, Endgame was the coup de grâce of a franchise built on viewers’ fascination with superheroes and villains.
The film earned $2.8 billion worldwide. It became the highest earning movie ever released, at the time.
But it was simply fiction, right? Could we actually live in a world where people exist who are capable of protecting civilization with superhuman skills?
As it turns out, this seemingly comic-book-only reality is closer to fact than fiction. And high-ranking military members from around the world are ready to see it happen.
“In the last century, Western civilization transformed from an industrial-based society to an information-based society, but today we’re on the brink of a new age: the age of human augmentation,” said Dr. Joel Mozer, chief scientist for the U.S. Space Force, during an Airforce Research Laboratory event on April 28. “In our business of national defense, it’s imperative that we embrace this new age, lest we fall behind our strategic competitors.”
The idea of human augmentation makes sense, at least in theory, and it wouldn’t be anything the government hasn’t tried before.
Back in the 1960s, the CIA ran a secret program called MKUltra, which conducted experiments on soldiers using drugs, torture, and other psychological techniques.
The goal was to develop a system of mind control, both drug and psychologically induced. If you could control your enemies’ minds, you could successfully get them to do your bidding or give up secret information.
MKUltra, overseen by American chemist Sidney Gottlieb, was sanctioned and scaled back multiple times over the years, before shutting down for good in 1973. These days, MKUltra is considered ultimately unsuccessful, a failure, and controversial at best.
“After all the experiments that led to deaths in unknown numbers around Europe and Asia and led to unknown torments across the United States, Gottlieb, who was, in the end, a scientist, was forced to reach the conclusion that he had failed,” Stephen Kinzer, a journalist who wrote a book about MKUltra, told NPR. “Mind control, he finally came to conclude, is a myth.”
Out of the box
While there is no evidence the U.S. military has attempted anything similar to MKUltra in the recent past, it has toyed with the idea of human augmentation.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), a department of the Pentagon, has overseen projects related to human augmentation, such as skin implants that can sense dangerous pathogens and neural transmitters which could connect human brain activity to computers.
“DARPA is preparing for a future in which a combination of unmanned systems, artificial intelligence, and cyber operations may cause conflicts to play out on timelines that are too short for humans to effectively manage with current technology alone,” said Al Emondi, program manager of DARPA’s Next-Generation Nonsurgical Neurotechnology (N3) program. “By creating a more accessible brain-machine interface that doesn’t require surgery to use, DARPA could deliver tools that allow mission commanders to remain meaningfully involved in dynamic operations that unfold at rapid speed.”
What differentiates the (N3) program from something like MKUltra is it isn’t attempting to change anything at a molecular level but is instead using an advanced piece of equipment to alter how the brain functions and reacts.
DARPA has also had success with surgically implanting electrodes to pair with a person’s central nervous system and has been able to accomplish feats such as allowing neural control of prosthetic limbs, restoring the sense of touch with artificial limbs, and providing relief from neuropsychiatric illnesses such as depression.
While the progress in being able to adjust how the brain thinks and reacts is intriguing, it isn’t exactly on the level of giving human’s supernatural abilities.
So, if we can’t create Captain America, how about Iron Man? The U.S., believe it or not, tried. It just didn’t work out.
Then-President Barack Obama announced to a room full of journalists that the U.S. was building its own version of Iron Man. The military was working to design an exoskeleton, called a Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit (TALOS), that would make a soldier bulletproof and indestructible.
TALOS was not meant to be. The initiative to build the suit was shuttered after five years, although the premise of a militarized exoskeleton remains a real possibility.
And, really, what ultimately differentiates a super suit from a superhuman is morality. Altering the fiber of a human being is a slippery slope and raises a variety of ethical concerns.
Vladimir Putin, Russia’s longtime president and man perhaps of questionable ethics, speculated at a 2017 youth festival in Sochi that the world was indeed on the brink of creating a super soldier, and a very dangerous one at that.
“One may imagine that a man can create a man with some given characteristics, not only theoretically but also practically,” Putin said. “He can be a genius mathematician, a brilliant musician, or a soldier, a man who can fight without fear, compassion, regret, or pain.”
Furthermore, according to John Ratcliffe, the former U.S. director of National Intelligence, China has already been working towards this very goal.
“China has even conducted human testing on members of the People’s Liberation Army in hope of developing soldiers with biologically enhanced capabilities,” Ratcliffe wrote in the Wall Street Journal. “There are no ethical boundaries to Beijing’s pursuit of power.”
China, for its part, steadfastly denied the accusations. But could there actually be something going on?
According to a 2019 paper from two U.S. academies, China does appear to be experimenting with at least the idea of techniques behind gene editing, militarized exoskeletons, and human-to-machine collaboration.
Elsa Kania, one of the paper’s authors and a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, was skeptical about Ratcliffe’s comments that China is actively altering the DNA of its military members in order to create advanced super soldiers.
“It’s important to understand what the Chinese military is discussing and aspiring to actualize, but also to recognize the distance between those ambitions to the reality of where technology is at this moment,” Kania told BBC News. “Even though militaries around the world may have quite a lot of interest in the possibility of super soldiers … at the end of the day, what is feasible within science does impose a constraint on any actor that is trying to try to push the frontiers.”
It would appear that, at least for now, turning a person into a super soldier is outside of the realm of possibility.
But how about if we created a super soldier from birth? Altering the DNA of a fetus is no longer something out of science fiction.
In 2018, for example, a Chinese scientist successfully altered the DNA in the embryo of twin girls to make them immune to HIV.
Could this method of DNA alteration be used to create a super soldier?
According to Dr. Helen O’Neill, a molecular geneticist from University College London, the question comes down to ethics rather than ability.
“The technologies — of genome editing and its combination with assisted reproduction — are becoming routine practices in transgenics and agriculture,” she told BBC News. “It’s just the combination of the two for human use that is seen as unethical at the moment.”
Still paying attention?