French army to develop bionic soldiers

2030 vision: Soldiers in tactical exoskeletons such as this one could be the future of war. © US Military

Should “enhancing” humans be banned? French officials yesterday published proposals to develop bionic soldiers resistant to pain – and strengthened with drug enhancements and microchips.

“We say yes to the armour of Iron Man, but not to enhancements or the genetic mutations of Spiderman.”

You would be forgiven for thinking it was a superhero convention, but French defence minister, Florence Parly, was being deadly serious. Addressing a committee on military ethics, she spoke about plans to upgrade the nation’s hardware – including its soldiers.

The committee was discussing its new report, which argues that France should give the green light to a variety of “enhancements” for its troops. It even discussed the possibilities of “invasive” augmentations, that is to say, surgery to implant devices that could enhance a soldier’s combat capabilities.

France wants to prioritise external enhancements, such as exoskeletons. But, as Parly suggested at the end of her speech, over the long term, it is keeping its options open.

Those options could include eye-implants, or even eye-replacements, to improve soldier’s vision, optogenetic bodysuits to avoid and counter injury and the insertion of devices into the brain to relay tactical information or fly drones.

Around the world, enhanced soldiers are no longer the stuff of outré science fiction. The American Director of National Intelligence recently accused China of scheming to create genetically enhanced supersoldiers.

For many, including Parly, there are still lines to be drawn. The French report says that nothing should be done to compromise the soldiers’ return to normal life, or their sense of humanity.

There are those, however, who suggest that such scruples are irrational, and that not only soldiers, but all humans should embrace a cyborg future.

Advocates of what is sometimes called transhumanism, argue that technology is allowing us to overcome the limits of the body. They point to the development of nanotechnology, gene-editing and artificial intelligence as proof that soon enough humanity will be an outdated concept.

If we can pick out the best genes for ourselves, and interface with machines to supercharge our intelligence – the argument goes – we will be something better than human.

One of the most prominent advocates of transhumanism, Google’s futurist, Ray Kurzweil, goes further still. He predicts a complete merger of human consciousness with artificial intelligence, which he calls the singularity.

Others see human enhancement taking us down a more dystopian path. Technologies for enhancing human capacities risk creating an ever widening gap between those who can afford them and those who can’t.

Should “enhancing” humans be banned?

Immortal combat

Yes it should, say some. Human cloning for reproduction is banned and enhanced humans have just as much potential to threaten human existence as cloning. Regardless of the plausibility of the singularity, it encourages dangerous lines of thinking about the value of life and equality. A world full of enhanced individuals could undermine the dignity of those who are only human.

Resistance is futile, say others. Humans are already cyborg-like; ever since we outsourced our memory to writing, we have been using technology to enhance our nature. Why stop now? It is irrational to distinguish between a smartphone in your hand, and a smart chip implanted in your brain. Genetic engineering is likewise just an extension of the logic of diet and exercise. You can’t stop progress.

You Decide

  1. If you could replace your legs with much stronger and faster mechanical ones that looked the same, would you want to?
  2. Would social inequality caused by genetic enhancement be worse than if it were the result of “natural” genetic variation?

Activities

  1. Some people suggest that nanotechnology, tiny robots, could be implanted in the body to keep it healthy. Write a story from the perspective of a bored nanorobot, whose job it is to clean a human’s lungs. Study what the inside of lungs look like on the internet to help your descriptions.
  2. You are the lawyer tasked with prosecuting scientists who violated a ban on human gene editing. They broke the law in order to prevent a couple’s child from developing a disease that would have made early death a certainty. Explain why the scientists deserve to be punished.

Some People Say...

“The study of Nature makes a man at last as remorseless as Nature.”

HG Wells (1866 - 1946), English pioneer of science fiction

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is widely agreed that gene-editing technology is developing rapidly. The CRISPR gene editing process, discovered in 2012, allows scientists to edit the DNA of living organisms. In 2018, a Chinese scientist, He Jiankui, used the technology on the first gene-edited human babies. He was widely criticised and subsequently arrested. In 2019, the World Health Organisation convened a summit to establish rules to govern research in the field of human gene-editing. The guidelines have yet to be announced.
What do we not know?
One key area of debate is how plausible the idea of a technological singularity is. Kurzweil’s predictions of exponential technological improvement are extrapolated from Moore’s law, an observation that computing power doubles roughly every two years. Moore’s law itself has shown signs of a slowdown since 2010. The prediction that computers will have human-like intelligence by 2029 is disputed by many AI researchers.

Word Watch

Exoskeletons
A structure external to the body that supports it. Insects naturally have exoskeletons.
Optogenetic
The ability to control the actions of neurons (nerve cells) using light.
Cyborg
A portmanteau of cybernetic organism. This means a being with both organic and mechanical components.
Transhumanism
The idea of man superseding humanity.
Nanotechnology
Any technology smaller than a nanometre in size. Current “nanotech” includes particles that reduce foot odour in socks.
Futurist
One who tries to predict the future.
Singularity
The term was first coined by Science Fiction author Vernor Vinge, who predicted that one day technology would reach a level where it exceeded human comprehension.
Dystopian
The opposite of a utopia, which is a perfect society. A nightmarish society.

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