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The Dilemma of Putting Technology ‘In’ or ‘On’ the Soldier

The Dilemma of Putting Technology ‘In’ or ‘On’ the Soldier

The Future Land Warfare Report 2014 (FLWR) raises the prospect of the Australian Army establishing a combat advantage by putting technology in rather than on the soldier by fusing ‘biology with technology’ (para. 32).  Putting biomedical implants or artificial intelligence into soldiers’ bodies represents the final step in human-machine teaming. 

To date, Army has been reluctant to explore invasive technology put in the soldier, instead preferring non-invasive technologies put on the soldier.  Army’s leading human enhancement programme, the Human Performance Research Network, invests resources into non-invasive technologies such as selection and training.  This is consistent with the preference for non-invasive technologies in the Human Science portfolio of Defence Science and Technology Group.  Such reluctance may see Australia fail to realise the combat advantage anticipated by the FLWR. 

There is certainly great potential for human-machine teaming that occurs in a soldier’s body.  For example, real time physiological state monitoring of soldiers (e.g. heart rate, blood pressure, oxygenation and temperature) can be done by inserting a device in a blood vessel rather than a bulky strap on monitor that interferes with movement.  Equally, soldiers can be equipped with a ‘radio frequency identification’ chip (like the chips in credit cards, but smaller) to facilitate a range of activities (e.g. access to buildings, movement tracking or roll calls).  While invasive, these technologies have no overt effect on fundamentally changing the person, and are easily reversible. 

Achieving a combat advantage by fusing biology with technology is likely to require more invasive technologies that overtly and permanently change the person.  Examples of this might be cochlear implants to enable echo location for subterranean combat, or genetic modification to increase muscle bulk and load carrying capacity.  Such invasive and permanent changes to a person raise significant moral and ethical challenges that might explain Army’s reluctance to engage with technology in the soldier.  A key challenge is resolving the role of that person in Australian society after their military service has ended. 

The morality and ethics of fusing biology with technology is part of a much broader conversation about ‘transhumanism’ and ‘cyborgism’ in Australian society and societies across the world.  For example, sport has been agonising over the role of technologically enhanced humans (e.g. doping) for nearly a century, with Australia being a leading advocate of ‘pure performance’.  This conversation has demonstrated that Australians prefer athletes to be natural (doping free) and authentic performers (performance attributable to human rather than technological endeavour).  Notably, a small research study shows a sample of Australians prefer combat soldiers to be natural and authentic performers, too. 

The outcome of such conversations in the short term has tremendous implications for the future of Land Power.  Strategically, Australia may find its influence in the Indo-Pacific fundamentally altered by the operational and tactical consequences if Army fails to consider the implications of adversaries fielding transhuman or cyborg soldiers in expeditionary or defensive (e.g. existential threat) contexts.  It is therefore up to Army to prepare Australian society for this possibility and seek guidance on the best way to respond. 

In essence, Australia has two options.  The first is to accept that Australian society is unwilling to accept transhuman or cyborg soldiers.  This means that Australia pursues technologies that are put on the soldier, preserving their natural and authentic status.  This might be achieved by investing in optimising the human organism (e.g. nutrition) or armed and armoured powered exoskeletons (and reflects the current investment strategy). 

The second is that Australian society needs to embrace transhumanism and cyborgism.  That is, Australia needs to let go of its preference for ‘natural’ and ‘authentic’ soldiers, and reorient towards a moral and ethical view that enables putting technology in the soldier.  This is a potentially seismic change in Australian values. 

Army is going to be leading a debate on what is a very simple dilemma for the future of Land Power, technology in or on the soldier.  That debate is likely to be very challenging, both for Army and Australia.

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

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