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.
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 Unfortunately, we now know that this idea is outdated.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.
pdf of ‘Brave New World: Neurowarfare and the Limits of International Humanitarian Law’.