x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Mind games: will future wars be fought in the head?

Now scientists are talking about military uses of neuro-science. Familiar old justifications are being offered but the problems of abuse are also familiar.

Not even Albert Einstein could foresee the future. "I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones," he said. One of the fathers of the atom bomb may have predicted the proliferation of nuclear weapons, but even he could hardly have foreseen what may be coming next: Now it seems future wars may take place, quite literally, in the head.

In a recent study published online in Synesis, scientists have claimed that "neuroweapons" - technologies that have the capacity to infiltrate the human brain - will in the not-too-distant future revolutionise the way wars are fought.

Cyber-warfare, and its evil twin cyberterrorism, are already here of course. But this new development raises the role of technology in warfare to a whole new level.

The report says that among the new brain technologies are "a pill that makes prisoners talk, deadly toxins that can shut down brain function in minutes, or super-soldiers who rely on brain chips to quickly lock in on an enemy's location".

Such advanced mind games may still be a few years away, but the moral implications are clear. And in a week in which US Republican presidential candidates have performed verbal gymnastics to redefine exactly what constitutes "torture", it doesn't take an Einstein, or even a Rick Perry, to see that a can of worms is slowly being pried open.

Mind warfare, or Psychological Operations (Psy Ops) as the US military calls it, is nothing new of course. As memorably portrayed in the book The Men Who Stare At Goats by Jon Ronson, and the George Clooney film adaptation, the US armed forces have long explored the potential of what psychological techniques might bring to military applications and interrogation methods.

The US State Department defines Psy Ops as "the planned use of propaganda and other psychological actions having the primary purpose of influencing the opinions, emotions, attitudes, and behaviour of hostile foreign groups in such a way as to support the achievement of national objectives".

But propaganda is one thing, and planting chips in people's brains is quite another.

The justification for neuroweapons, like the reason for targeted strikes in the Gulf War 21 years ago, is that they would minimise civilian casualties by hitting only specific enemy personnel and locations. The reality, as the sorry tales of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib have shown, is that thanks to wide-scale security measures such as the Patriot Act in the US and other draconian laws and practices around the world, innocent civilians can still easily become caught up in the seemingly endless "war on terror".

But is it morally acceptable to use such methods on what would likely be prisoners of war? Should mind control be kept out of conventional warfare, if such a thing even exists any more? Where would the Geneva Convention stand on this issue?

If these methods are employed successfully, then it's a safe bet that this ethical debate would be adroitly avoided by governments. But as we all know, not all governments are equal: one regime's interrogation tactic is another's terrorist method.

Once neuroweapons are in the "wrong" hands - and there's no reason to assume they eventually wouldn't be - you can be sure that those who developed these weapons would be the first to cry foul. Would Western powers, for example, tolerate the likes of North Korea and Iran employing such tactics?

Over 200 neuroscientists from 18 countries have already signed a petition pledging that new technologies will not be used for military purposes. Then again, speaking against the atom bomb, Einstein said, "past thinking and methods did not prevent world wars. Future thinking must prevent wars".

A future of sticks and stones is more likely.

 

akhaled@thenational.ae

Follow on Twitter: @AliKhaled_