Thursday, April 17, 2008

Neuroweapons, War Crimes and the Preconscious Brain

The other day I posted a review of the science on decision making, which essentially shows that a great many of our mental functions occur below the threshold of awareness. Now Mind Hacks has posted an article suggested that the military is trying to create technology that uses this understanding of the brain -- the article looks at some of the legal issues involved as well.

A new generation of military technology interfaces directly with the brain to target and trigger weapons before our conscious mind is fully engaged.

In a new article in the Cornell International Law Journal, lawyer Stephen White asks whether the concept of a 'war crime' becomes irrelevant if the unconscious mind is pulling the trigger.

In most jurisdictions, the legal system makes a crucial distinction between two elements of a crime: the intent (mens rea) and the action (actus rea).

Causing something dreadful to happen without any intent or knowledge is considered an accident and not a crime. Hence, a successful prosecution demands that the accused is shown to have intended to violate the law in some way.

This concept is based on the theory that the conscious mind forms an intention, and an actions follows. Unfortunately, we now know that this idea is outdated.

In the 1980s, pioneering experiments by Benjamin Libet demonstrated that activity in the brain's action areas can be reliably detected up to 200ms before we experience the conscious decision to act. In other words, consciousness seems to lag behind action.

Although with only limited reliability (just 60%), a recent fMRI study found that areas in the frontal lobes were starting to become more active up to seven seconds before the conscious intention to act.

While these sorts of study raise interesting questions about free will, their effect on the courts has been minimal, because it is assumed that, at least for healthy individuals, we have as much control over stopping our own actions as starting them.

The US government's defence research agency, DARPA, is currently developing new military technologies, dubbed 'neuroweapons', that may throw these assumptions into disarray.

The webpage of DARPA's Human Assisted Neural Devices Program only mentions the use of brain-machine interfaces in terms of helping injured veterans, but p11 of the US Dept of Defense budget justification [pdf] explicitly states that "This program will develop the scientific foundation for novel concepts that will improve warfighter performance on the battlefield as well as technologies for enhancing the quality of life of paralyzed veterans".

In other words, the same technology that allows humans to control computer cursors, robot arms or wheelchairs by thought alone, could be used to target and trigger weapons.

Even if only part of the process, such as selecting possible targets, is delegated to technology that reads the unconscious orienting response from the brain, that still means that part of the thought process has automatically become part of the action.

Notably, international law outlaws indiscriminate weapons and aggression, but if the unconscious thought becomes the weapon, how can we possibly prosecute a war crime?

White reviews the current state of the technology from the unclassified evidence and carefully examines the ethical and legal issues, ultimately arguing that we need a new legal framework for 21st century 'neurowarfare'.

The first preconsious war may soon be upon us.

You can access a pdf of the article this post was based on at Mind Hacks.

Let's assume they can do this, that the technology exists, what are the risks?

Imagine an 18-year-old kid, fresh out of basic training, patrolling the streets of Iraq. He is wearing a helmet that senses the threat assessment center in the brain. His weapon, linked to the software that reads his thoughts, is always held at waist level, pointed forward to fire whenever the brain senses a threat.

Some al-Qaeda soldiers begin to fire on the patrol, and since this is a residential area, there are many civilians around. His brain senses threats all around and the weapon begins to fire, first in the direction of the original gunshots, but then at anything that might be a threat, including children running for cover.

Do we really want frightened teenagers carrying weapons that respond the fear and threat patterns in the brain? These preconscious weapons, even in the best scenarios, remove the decision-making process from the higher function areas of the brain and put in the more primal parts of the brain, where there is little selectivity.

This stuff scares the hell out of me.

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