Regulating Military Applications of Cyber Enhancement of Humans

By: Yuval Shany & Noam Lubell

This project will allow the development of new knowledge across multiple disciplines, leading to innovative research on the interface between cyber security and military applications of human enhancement, fusing technological expertise with international law and ethics.

Human enhancement technologies are far from new. Indeed, some might consider eyeglasses invented centuries ago to be a form of enhancement used by millions of people. A common narrower understanding of the term is “biomedical interventions that are used to improve human form or functioning beyond what is necessary to restore or sustain health” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). The divide between restoration and enhancement is not always clear-cut, and there is a direct line from spectacles designed to restore normal vision, through modern attempts to restore visual function via retinal stimulation, and to the potential for visual prosthetics (’bionic eye’) to outperform regular vision. As for military applications, while a future of cyborg soldiers is thought to be science-fiction, some form of ‘super-soldier’ is not that far away. Militaries are already experimenting with exoskeleton suits that provide increased strength and endurance, while brain-machine interfaces could be utilised in weapons systems. Should the enhancement revolution continue, militaries might one day induce conscripts to undergo modification making them faster and stronger, raising obvious ethical and legal concerns. Similar issues could arise with brain implants to remove the ‘frailties’ of fear or fatigue, while commanders could have cognitive implants to allow them to process decisions at a new level.

Beyond the obvious medical and scientific literature, the focus of the discussion surrounding human enhancement technologies has been largely predominated by ethical and philosophical debates. Issues of concern have included the fear of new eugenics, the propriety of enhancement for aesthetic purposes and fairness considerations (for example in sports). There have also been critiques of enhancement as an essentially dehumanising action and compromising authenticity (being true to oneself). In recent years, there has been increased attention to the legal implications of enhancement in matters such as the effects of brain interventions on criminal responsibility or rehabilitation and the right to bodily integrity.

Enhancement can come in many forms, ranging from genetic and pharmaceutical modifications, through to advanced prosthetics. Among the most advanced and innovative avenues for enhancements are those using computer science and electronic engineering. Such modifications can include cyber implants designed to enhance or modify certain brain functions in line with military needs, allowing programmers and network administrators to influence the process of cognition. Other developments linking cyber security and enhancement can be seen in current research into brain-machine interfaces. In the military context, this can include weapon systems being controlled through such interfaces, reducing the time-lag of pressing physical buttons and pulling triggers.

These technologies raise profound legal questions challenging some of our basic assumptions and principles underlying international humanitarian and human rights law and, while the issues are beginning to emerge, they have not to date been comprehensively mapped; needless to say, we are still a long way from offering satisfactory answers to many of them. Questions in need of further reflection in this context include: would interventions that reduce the emotion of fear lead to higher likelihood of war crimes, and if so, should such interventions be prohibited? At the same time, if cognitive enhancements could allow commanders to engage in faster and more accurate decision-making which reduces civilian collateral damage, could there be an obligation to enhance? Furthermore, international law requires a particular review process for new weapons to ensure their compatibility with legal requirements; brain-machine interfaces and other technologies are blurring the line between soldiers and weapons – should cyber human enhancements therefore be subjected to the weapons review process? Can the law accommodate for the risks of enhancement technologies being used unscrupulously by immoral commanders? Will cyber enhanced soldiers be susceptible to hacking into their cognitive implants, and what are the risks and available protections against this? Will these technologies further exacerbate the challenges in regulating asymmetrical warfare between super-developed and under-developed military organizations? What rights, including privacy rights, would the soldiers have with regard to being enhanced, should permanent enhancements be avoided, and what role should consent play in a military context?


Programme of activities:

The Principal Investigator, Prof. Lubell, will spend much of his time in 2017-2018 studying, with the assistance of experts in law and technology, multiple aspects of the topic, with a view to authoring a series of publications on the topic. Prof. Lubell will be assisted in his work with a post-doc level student (who shall produce a publication on the topic) and a more junior research assistant, based at HU in Jerusalem and co-supervised by Prof. Shany.

The initial stages of the project will include time spent at the Applied Physics Laboratories of Johns Hopkins, where some of the most advanced research is occurring in these areas. Crucially, this is the home of much of the cutting-edge research funded by the US Department of Defense. They have already indicated their agreement to host Professor Lubell for a number of months in 2017-2018, providing a unique opportunity for the ability to learn from and interact directly with the scientists, engineers and analysts developing these technologies, through meetings, workshops and laboratory observations. This will provide a first-hand understanding of the technologies, and serve as the foundation for the analysis of their use.

A short period will also be spent by Prof. Lubell at the Centre for Human Rights Science at Carnegie Mellon University, to gain further perspectives from colleagues in additional disciplines including the history of technology in relation to human rights. He will also conduct visits to the US Naval War College and West Point Military Academy, to meet with military lawyers and commanders and discuss the military perspectives of how these technologies might be deployed.  

Time will also be spent by Prof. Lubell at the Hebrew University, as an Associate Researcher at the Cyber Security Center, which will host in 2018 an international workshop on the topic.