Biotechnology and human-machine interfaces are both poised for big take-offs in the near future. This is evidenced by countless breakthroughs that have been in the news over the past few years, which have included everything from machine-powered exoskeletons to 3D printed skin to implantable computer chips. But these technologies will obviously not only be used for benign purposes—in fact, according to a recently published study by the Department of Defense (DOD), they will be used to create super cyborg soldiers that will dominate the battlefield by 2050, if not earlier.
While it’s a truism that technological breakthroughs from the civilian realm have always been used for military applications, the DOD’s report, which was researched and written up by its Biotechnologies for Health and Human Performance Council (BHPC), still glimpses the future of the military’s planned technological strategies in a shockingly transparent and detailed way. The report, which comes via Futurism, even has the distinct sci-fi title of “Cyborg Soldier 2050: Human/Machine Fusion and the Implications for the Future of the DOD.” And if that title doesn’t signal a future of warfare that looks very much like the one depicted in Edge of Tomorrow, then we don’t know what does.
A video—unrelated to the report—showing what technologies soldiers could deploy in the near future. U.S. Army CCDC
The report breaks down what the BHPC expects to happen on the soldier-machine fusion front into a handful of major categories that specifically highlight ocular enhancements, including improvements to sight and situational awareness; optogenetic body suit sensor webs; auditory enhancements for communication, and “direct neural enhancement of the human brain for two-way data transfer.” Incidentally, on numerous occasions, the report notes that it’s almost guaranteed that all of these technologies will be first invented and deployed by civilians.
The report says that the military should expect soldiers to be outfitted with “ocular enhancement system[s]” that will overlay their retinas and allow them to view data streams (presumably pertaining to things like battlefield updates), passively record what’s happening around them, distinguish between civilians and targets, repair damage to their eyes, and even allow them to expand the wavelengths of light they’re able to see, which would enable them to perceive the world in infrared. Beyond that, the report says that by 2050, it’s exceedingly likely that some soldiers’ eyeballs will be replaced entirely by machine ones that will provide visual data fed directly into their optical nerve bundles.
There was a Black Mirror episode like this–Man Against Fire in which a soldier hunts mutants known as roaches. His neural implant (which alters his perception of reality) malfunctions and he discovers that they are ordinary human beings.
— SheBlindedMeWithScience (@BlindedShe) November 27, 2019
Thanks to auditory enhancements, the report says that soldiers will most likely develop a “greater dynamic range of hearing,” which will allow them to perceive sounds on the ultrasonic and infrasonic levels—that is, sounds made above and below the levels normally perceptible by people. Unlike the ocular enhancements, however, the report notes that complete replacement of soldiers’ inner- or mid-ear regions is less likely, due to the difficulty and irreversibility of those procedures. But the door is left open for technologies that would eventually allow for those full replacements.
The optogenetic advancements the DOD sees coming down the pike are where things get especially Edge-y. The report outlines the likelihood that light sensors—optogenetics refers to the use of light to control cells in living tissue—will be implanted beneath soldiers’ skin, and will be used in conjunction with “musculoskeletal control systems” (robotic exoskeletons) in order to enable them to basically be better, faster, and stronger. On top of that, the optogenetic upgrades will also allow soldiers to perform tasks that are normally beyond their capabilities by allowing the suit, or even another human, to control their movements. The ability to easily remove the exoskeletons from the soldiers is highlighted as especially appealing, although it sounds like the sensors themselves won’t be as easily separated considering the fact they’ll be under the soldiers’ skin.
Finally, for the pièce de résistance, there are the neural implants, which will make warfare so surreal and unthinkable, it could literally be considered awesome. According to the report, neural implants will give soldiers the ability to communicate with each other in complex ways without speaking, which more or less sounds like a kind of Vulcan Mindmeld. The neural implants will also allow the soldiers’ brain activity to be monitored, although it’s not exactly clear who would be doing the monitoring and for what reasons.
Moving objects with your mind used to be science fiction – but not anymore! DYK: Computer-aided telekinesis is here ? Mind-controlled drone racing = revolutionary technology developed by #UA’s Dr. Chris Crawford + students ? #RollTide pic.twitter.com/SGbFf4d3M7
— The Univ. of Alabama (@UofAlabama) April 22, 2019
A tweet showcasing mind-controlled drones. This is unrelated to the DOD’s report.
But what will be most profound about the neural implants, it seems, will be the symbiosis they’ll lead to between soldiers and weapons systems. The report notes that the neural implants will have “broad battlefield applicability,” and “[will] allow for interaction with… assets (i.e., weapons systems, reconnaissance drones, UAVs, and unmanned marine vehicles [UMVs]) as well as personnel within proximity or across distances through hierarchical relays with a central network.” This means, in a very real way, soldiers will likely be able to control tanks, submarines, gunships, and maybe even some of these with their minds. There’s no mention of controlling nuclear weapons, but maybe the DOD’s report focused on the year 2100 will just go ahead and claim Dr. Manhattan as the future of warfare.
What do you think about this take on the future of cyborg soldiers? Are the DOD’s predictions on point, or will technology change too rapidly over the next three decades to be accurately predicted at this time? Give us a full report on your thoughts in the comments!
Feature image: Warner Bros.