Human Enhancement and the Cyborg Combatant

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Humans have always sought to enhance themselves. The history of humanity is a story of that pursuit for greater improvement and ultimately, survival. Combatants are no different. The body is, after all, inherently vulnerable and not built to sustain the rigours of combat. 

So, if you could enhance yourself for war, where would you begin? If the end-state is to achieve a harmony between humans and machines, how do we envisage the cyborg combatant evolving? More importantly, what would you be willing to do to achieve that enhancement? If people are willing to undergo surgery to make themselves more attractive, could we envisage a world where combatants would undergo surgery to make themselves more lethal? 

Thankfully, not all enhancements require such invasive measures. If we can use contact lenses to augment impaired vision, we can easily envisage an application for lenses that greatly enhances your vision. If we can use exoskeletons to help factory workers, then there is no reason we can’t apply that same technology to the warfighter – although, if you read my last article, you would know my thoughts on that technology.

These applications are relatively innocuous and easy to conceptualise because we are already doing them. Many of us attach things to our body every day for enhancement, from smart watches and Fitbits to active hearing and compression clothing. More novel advancements have even seen temporary tattoos developedthat can be used to control electronic devises. Perhaps not surprisingly then, the market for wearable devices is now estimated to become $US60 billion a year by 2022.

Advances in prosthesis provide yet another avenue from which to imagine a variety of cyborg applications for wounded combatants, as well as those seeking to remotely control robotic devices. Perhaps the most commonly known cyborg-like device to be implanted in humans today is the pacemaker; however, most people would not wish to require one in their lifetime. 

If you were willing to have something implanted within you, there are some interesting applications to consider. The Sydney man who implanted the chip from his Opal travel card into his hand, provides one bizarre application of both present and emerging technology. The same application could just as easily pair you with a chip to replicate aspects of your wallet, passport or medical information. A UK-based company is even offering a chip that lets your body know when you are facing north and thereby giving you a sixth sense

No doubt many young officers-in-training would be interested in that last option!

Venturing further into the realm of the possible, let’s consider the application of a heads-up display facilitated through the human visual cortex, or augmentation of the inner ear to provide hearing protection, enhancement and ultimately, another form of communication transmission. These are all concepts being considered or in various stages of trial and development throughout the world to create the cyborg combatant. 

The real prize though and the ultimate goal in this endeavour is to enhance the mind. To truly create the human-machine team, we will need to find ways to augment our cognitive functions. Although, if you were not tempted by the performance enhancing drugs I described in an earlier article, you are unlikely to be excited by the idea of a surgical brain implant to achieve this level of augmentation.

Such implants are, however, already being forecast for human trials this year by Elon Musk’s company Neuralink. Promising a minimally invasive procedure, Neuralink plans to insert electrodes into the cerebral cortex to enable the user to control devices like smart phones with only their thoughts. 

Dual use applications of this technology would provide a variety of applications in war. The most advanced application is likely to be something akin to the ‘BrainPal’ envisaged in John Scalzi’s book, ‘Old Man’s War’. In other words, ‘Siri’ for your inner thoughts. 

If this is indeed the future, then Dr James Giordano’s forecast that the brain is the battlefield of the future, seems accurate. If the brain can be enhanced, then it can also be disrupted. Drugs can be used to alter the decision-making of key leaders in discrete and nefarious ways. Brain implants can also be hacked, manipulated and degraded.

The mind, after all, has no firewall

Consider the case of the US Embassy in Cuba in 2016 where diplomats were allegedly targeted by a directed-energy weapon. Regardless of which weapon might have been used against those diplomats, the future implications could include discriminate targeting of enhanced humans in a variety of settings. How might we protect our minds against such a threat? Neuroweapons could exist in a variety of chemical, microbiological and electromagnetic forms. Arguably, psychological warfare is one existing form of an indirect neuroweapon in use today.

So, if the data received by the brain can already be manipulated, does a cognitive enhancement make us more or less susceptible to this form of targeting? 

Just as damaging as the potential to disrupt a cognitive enhancement, is the fear that it could be disrupted. If humans cannot trust their enhancement, they are unlikely to embrace its use. To lose control of the most important organ in your body is a frightening proposition and could easily inspire panic if the users are unable to readily remove their surgical enhancements. These concerns have likely been one the motivations for the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency to explore nonsurgical methods of achieving the brain-machine interface.

All of these challenges lead to a host of ethical, medical and ultimately, strategic considerations to which we are unlikely to be prepared to navigate at this time. Are we willing to make decisions now about what we are, or are not prepared to augment for human performance? It’s difficult to make these decisions when there is so much that we don’t yet know.

Only one thing appears to be clear: the cyborg combatant is coming.

This is the fourth (and final) article in a series drawn from Major Gareth Rice’s research on the future of human performance at the ADF’s Force Design Division. You can find the previous articles published herehere and here.

About the Author: Major Gareth Rice conducts future warfare analysis for Force Design Division. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of the ADF or Australian Government. If you have your own thoughts on this topic, please reach out to him at You can find him on Twitter at @RiceGareth.

Cover Image Credit: Defence Image Gallery.