The U.S. Army is hard at work imagining what the human-machine hybrids of the future will be able to accomplish on the battlefields of 2050. But the folks in charge of keeping America safe also have their concerns. Specifically, the U.S. Army is worried that humans are biased against deadly cyborg soldiers, just because we’ve all seen the Terminator franchise and it doesn’t work out very well for the humans.
The U.S. Army released a new report last month titled “Cyborg Soldiers 2050: Human/ Machine Fusion and the Implications for the Future of the DOD,” which spells out the most likely ways that human soldiers can be augmented with things like cybernetic ears and brains jacked into the internet. First reported by Vice, the report is the result of a year-long study to “determine the potential of machines that are physically integrated within the human body to augment and enhance the performance of human beings over the next 30 years.”
And while it’s reasonable to assume that many of the things in this report won’t be a reality by 2050, this kind of futurism often creates new avenues of thinking for military contractors who want to know what kinds of far out technologies they should be focusing on. The report also includes some curious recommendations, like making the case to the American public that cyborg warfighting technologies are nothing to be afraid of.
The study included four case studies involving different ways that humans may be altered with machines to fight in the Army of the future. The first case study looked at “ocular enhancement,” that would insert special imaging technology in place of one or more eyes. The second case study includes suits with sensors implanted under the skin to give soldiers superhuman control whether it’s in areas of strength, speed, or anything else.
The third case study involves auditory enhancement—basically the modification of the ear along with networking capabilities that again makes any soldier superhuman. The fourth and last case study looked at “direct neural enhancement of the human brain,” which is exactly what it sounds like. Future cyborg soldiers would even be able to jack-in directly with other weapon systems, drones, and anything else electronic on the battlefield. Many of the brain enhancements from this group have been a focus for DARPA over the past few years.
But perhaps the most interesting observations from the study are that the U.S. Army will have to deal with bias against robot-human hybrids because of the anti-technology media we all consume. The wording of that part of the report is particularly interesting and appears to have its own biases heavily in favor of cyborg soldiers.
From the report, emphasis ours:
Aside from allied acceptance and military interoperability is the global political costs of fielding cyborg military assets. The workshop participants unanimously anticipated that state and non-state adversaries will seek to use U.S. deployment of enhanced warfighters to undermine U.S. interests and stigmatize the DOD as unethical. Given the results of the Pew study, religion seems a likely platform to galvanize these arguments against U.S. interests with entertainment and social media enforcement.
Again, the way that the report is worded seems to imply that establishing human-machine cyborgs on the battlefield is inherently in the U.S. Army’s interests and anyone who questions that assumption is working against America’s interests.
The report continues:
Mass media, including films and literature, is also a known stage for demonization of cyborgs.
The demonization of cyborgs! Sounds like a satirical Futurama plot where Bender campaigns for robot rights or something.
From Frankenstein to the Terminator, the message is often that technology’s integration that technology’s integration with the human body robs the human spirit of its compassion and leads to violence and grave, unintended consequences. However, fiction can also reflect imaginative applications of emerging technologies as well as real concerns with those technologies. For these reasons, fiction can be a powerful tool for engaging the public in discussions of bioethics. A better-informed public that creates and consumes media related to emerging technologies may thus help DOD and its partners forecast ELSI concerns to mitigate problems early int he development of enhancement-related capabilities.
But the Army doesn’t think that the public will find its own way to loving the robot soldiers of tomorrow.
The study group recommended that efforts should be undertaken to reverse the negative cultural narratives of enhancement technologies and leverage media as a means of engaging the public. Across popular social and open-source media, literature, and film, the use of machines to enhance the physical condition of the human species has received a distorted and dystopian narrative in the name of entertainment. More accurate depiction of technology and its applications in fiction and nonfiction media could lay the groundwork for a new generation that sees opportunity for societal benefits in cyborg technologies.
The idea that a dystopian narrative is “less accurate” sure needs a citation, if you ask me. I mean, have these people seen what we’ve done with our technology in the 2010s? And are they aware that the global rise of fascism is putting our most deadly technologies in the hands of literal madmen?
If technology is to become a more intimate partner in the physical enhancement of the human species, then DOD personnel must help alter distorted climate narratives. A realistic, balanced (if not more positive) narrative will serve to better educate the public, mitigate societal apprehensions, and remove barriers to productive adoption of these new technologies. Although not intrinsically a DOD mission, defense leadership should understand that if they intend to field these technologies, public and social perceptions will need to be understood and overcome.
Did you catch that last part? The social perceptions that give Americans pause about our robot-fused future must be “understood and overcome.” Overcome. The report doesn’t say exactly how to accomplish that, but it’s a safe bet that we can expect to see a lot more partnerships with Hollywood in the coming years.
The U.S. military already spends an incredible amount of time in partnership with Hollywood, providing expensive equipment, vehicles, and extras for films in exchange for veto-power over the script. So we can expect to see a lot more movies where cyborg supersoldiers save the day. Movies like Captain Marvel, the Transformers series, and the upcoming Top Gun sequel all had enormous help from the U.S. military and are essentially recruiting films. But the next decade might not just be working to recruit young people. If this new report is any indication, the U.S. military wants more stories to show that technology is our friend, whether they are or not.