By Emma Young | Cosmos
As the sun sets over a desert riddled with enemy fighters, a solitary Special Forces officer slips on his helmet. He chooses his next move, and his thoughts are transmitted silently to the rest of his unit. As he picks up his weapon, his helmet reads his thoughts, directing an autonomous combat robot positioned nearby to cover his advance.
A continuous data stream from his brainwave-monitoring helmet transmits feedback on his stress levels and the information load on his brain to his commanding officer. Thanks to a skin patch delivering drugs into the bloodstream, his stress levels are in check, and, despite sleeping for just two of the past 72 hours, he’s still thinking clearly.
Besides, when he enrolled for duty he was screened for his ability to manage highly stressful situations, and his brain scans showed him to be a calm, fast-thinking risk-taker – the perfect soldier.
This scenario sounds futuristic, and to some extent it still is. But recent advances in neuroscience are bringing many of these concepts closer to reality, and prototypes of some of these systems are available now. While the 20th century saw a revolution in weaponry, military engagements of the 21st century could be transformed by a new focus on the brain.
Brain-scanning helmets, neural stimulation and drug enhancement are part of this revolution. “We’re on the threshold of all these things,” says Rod Flower, a biochemical pharmacologist at Queen Mary, University of London. “In the future, the scope for neuroscience to give a military advantage could be very large.”
In early 2012, Flower chaired a British Royal Society group that wrote a report on neuroscience’s potential for military uses. A few years earlier, the U.S. Army commissioned the U.S. National Research Council (NRC) to produce a report on the topic. Featuring predictions and hopes for the future, the report concluded that “a growing understanding of neuroscience offers huge scope for improving soldiers’ performance and effectiveness on the battlefield”.
Right now, research groups around the world either run or funded by military organisations are conducting research and field trials on everything from drugs that boost reaction times to binoculars that tap into their wearer’s unconscious mind.