USA-China: the brain is the new battlefield

(To Antonio Vecchio)

The connections of the nervous system and its main organ with a machine are not a scientific novelty: the first experiences in the field of brain-computer interface (BCI)1 they were developed by the University of California starting from the 70 years of the last century, later merged into numerous practical applications especially in the health field, aimed - for example - at restoring movement, sight or hearing to individuals who had lost them.

The cochleal implants, which transform the audio signals into electrical impulses to be sent directly to the brain, provide a clear demonstration of the progress achieved in this field, as well as orthopedic prostheses controllable by the patient's brain2.

The "computer - brain" interface has recently also been dedicated Elon Musk, the famous American millionaire CEO of Tesla and Space X as well as founder of PayPal, investing in a start up, NEURALINK3, which promises to merge human and digital intelligence to achieve a "new cognitive domain increased".

The idea behind the project, presented last July 16 at the California Academy of Sciences, involves installing the patient's skull with a robotic syringe of 3.072 electrodes distributed on 96 small and flexible strings, able not only to monitor brain activity but also to connect with a computer external via a USB-C cable with which to exchange upload data at a speed of one trillion bits per second (against about 100 bits per second of our brain).

Musk believes it is time to "enter into symbiosis with machines4" through a "interface with high bandwidth", Which on the one hand enhances the subject's activities thanks to the computer to which it is connected, on the other hand it allows him to exercise the peculiar capacity for judgment, discernment and ingenuity typical of human reasoning.

The human-computer connection, according to Musk, will also allow and above all to counteract the effects (judged by him) that are harmful by the increasingly frequent use of artificial intelligence (IA).

That said, there is no doubt that one of the fields in which the BCI will find greater application is precisely the military one.

If such a prediction has not yet been confirmed in Europe - where, in addition to the individual initiatives of the States, the Human Brain Project (HBP) has long been active5 subsidized by European Union in order to study and replicate some of the brain's functionalities - it is a certain fact in the USA, in which, at government level, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), already starting from the 2013 launched the project "Avatar "6 in order to create a robotically controlled remote combat unit using a brain-machine interface (BCI).

In March, 2018, DARPA also launched the Next-Generation Nonsurgical Neurotechnology (N3) program7, involving six national universities and research centers (Battelle Memorial Institute, Carnegie Mellon University, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Palo Alto Research Center, Rice University, and Teledyne Scientific) in research and development - as stated on the Agency's website - "of non-invasive wearable systems, which allow commanders a thorough knowledge of current operations".

The N3 program8 studies technologies able to read and write in brain cells in 50 milliseconds only, and to interact with at least 16 brain portions with a resolution of 1 cubic millimeter (a space that includes thousands of neurons).

DARPA has been dealing with BCI for at least 18 years, during which time it has perfected numerous supports equipped with electrodes that can be placed by surgery, which in many cases have re-established the mobility of limbs, the recovery of touch and the treatment of neuropsychiatric pathologies.

The novelty element of the project started in March last year, however, lies in the non-invasive of the supports that it intends to realize, destined to military operators for - for example - "to take control over cyber defense systems, drone swarms or to cooperate with other computerized systems during complex operations ”.

Among the non-invasive methods under study and experimentation there is also the use of electric and electromagnetic fields to stimulate neurons and the possibility of introducing into the operator's body - through ingestion, injection and inspiration - particular vectors with the task of provide information on the activity of neurons.

Also the China it is not far behind in the field of BCI. On these pages, we have repeatedly written about Beijing's commitment to develop AI programs and tools for military purposes.

In this regard, the article deserves careful reading9 appeared in May 2018 on the Chinese Journal of Traumatology, with which three researchers from the neurosurgery departments of Changzheng hospitals, the 202 military hospital and the Medical University of the People's Army proposed to the national scientific community even the establishment of a new branch of independent study, called Brain Military Science (BMS), aimed at:

  • understand fully the brain, the morphology, its structure, the methods of neural connection and its elementary and advanced functions. The document states that: "at present, many brain functions and their factors of influence have not been clarified. For example, how does the brain make a judgment and a decision on the external environment? How does the brain create an alarm reaction to a dangerous environment? How does the brain control the movements and emotions of fear? Studies have suggested that environmental space, magnetic fields, shock waves, etc. they can all have an impact on brain activity with brain tissue damage, (...) that must be analyzed and resolved to understand the brain. "

  • protect the brain, that is, identifying measures, drugs, equipment and strategies to preserve its functionality in combat;

  • to monitor the brain activity of the soldier;

  • hit the brain of the adversary, that is, to study "the damaging effects produced by acoustic weapons, laser weapons, high-explosive weaponsà ed electromagnetic (...) and establish the relationship between the parameters of the weapon and their effects ";

  • to influence the brain affecting normal activity by developing disabling agents of the nervous system and the body. Research in this field aims to develop, "according to the cognitive characteristics of the enemy population, infrared weapons that are able to interfere with brain structures and cause madness through resonance (...). The psychological tactics will be used to interfere with the original beliefs and thinking of the brain, causing psychological damage to the enemy, reducing his willà to fight and to increase that of surrender. (...) Based on the peculiar brain features of enemy fighters, it will be possible to develop noises, acoustic signals and other special sounds that interfere with the brain and produce fear, depression, dysphoria and other emotions that reduce the effectiveness of combat ”;

  • repair the fighter's brain, or study howinnovate the treatment concepts related to brain injuries and conduct research in the areas of nerve transplantation and intelligent prostheses to restore brain function. This through "the improvement of techniques for the regeneration of the retina, artificial cochlear implants, deep brain stimulation, mechanical prostheses and new technologies and useful equipment for the purpose ";

  • simulate "decision-making processes of the brain and its neural mechanisms"To develop"chips and robots inspired by the brain, which combine visual, auditory, thought and execution skills to be used in combat instead of human fighters ". The study and simulation of how the brain works will allow us to develop techniques for "predict the decisions of the enemy commander"Adapting those friends from time to time;

  • improve the brain functions of personnel performing special tasks, to enable them to increase their performance and replace any comrades who may have fallen in combat. For this purpose - the document reads - it will be necessary "To study the mechanisms and technologies to improve brain function, for example through sound, light, electricity, magnetism and other means; carry out research based on transcranial magnetic stimulation technology to improve cognitive function; to study the technology of reactivation of the destination memory in a state of sleep; develop alarm products and brain fatigue intervention; develop anti-fatigue drugs without side effects; and develop drugs that can improve the soldier's cognition and operational abilities ".

  • arm the brain by studying the brain computer interface (BCI): "The goal is to study direct bidirectional technology between the brain and radar detection systems, control systems, weapon systems and other external equipment."

The contribution of the three Chinese researchers indicates why the direction taken by the main global players in the field of BCI was never made, and confirmed the brain, even in the military, as the new frontier to be explored.

It will be history that shows us winners and losers of this new challenge, which presents itself as something profoundly different from the technological competitions of the past.

"Increasing "the brain by connecting it directly to a computer implies" decreasing it "in its evolutionary primacy, and at the same time it changes our position on the planet, diminishing the primacy of the homo species.

The danger is that you get to the day when artificial intelligence, functionally structured similar to the human one with neural networks, abandons its cradle and becomes autonomous: they call it "singularity".

If it ever happened, it would be above all an ontological barrier to fall: the one that separates matter and spirit, body and soul from the dawn of our civilization, proclaiming the primacy of thought and feeling over the physicality of the places where they originate.

Time will tell who will win the challenge; history will indicate the real extent of this further leap forward for our species.

As long as we remain the only ones able to collect the response.


Photo: DARPA / NEURALINK / Chinese Journal of Traumatology / US Air National Guard