All Your Brain Are Belong To Us: Neuroscience Goes To War

The Royal Society has just released a fascinating report entitled “Neuroscience, Conflict and Security” that examines the increasing role that neuroscientific research is playing in the military today (thanks to Nick for drawing my attention to it). Indeed, as was reported by Wired’s Danger Room a couple of years ago, the US Air Force has been soliciting  research proposals for “innovative science and technology projects to support advanced bioscience research” that include “bio-based methods and techniques to sustain and optimize airmen’s cognitive performance”, “identification of individuals who are resistant to the effects of various stressors and countermeasures on cognitive performance” and “methods to degrade enemy performance and artificially overwhelm enemy cognitive capabilities.” Likewise, DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency that gave us the Internet) has long shown significant interest in the potential military applications of neuroscience.

As the Royal Society report puts it, military neuroscience can be seen to have “two main goals: performance enhancement, i.e. improving the efficiency of one’s own forces, and performance degradation, i.e. diminishing the performance of one’s enemy” (p.1). It is with reference to these two goals that I will attempt in this post to make some sense of the wider context and implications of neuroscience’s entanglement with contemporary martial practices.

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Reality Mining for Population-Centric Computational Counterinsurgency; Or, Feedback Loops Meet Hermeneutic Circles

Drizzled between the gun battles were occasional accounts of villages stabilized and town elders met. But, written as random notes, the accounts were hard to insert into a database. There was nothing consistent, nothing you could plot as a trend over time.

‘These were intelligence reports, not measurable data,’ the source says. ‘The population-centric information wasn’t to be found there.’

So the team widened their search, without much luck. The most reliable data they could find was weekly fruit prices from Jalalabad, a city in northeastern Afghanistan. At least those could be measured over time.

“One assumed there was some secret mound of data to be exploited. But it’s just not true,” the source adds.

Noah Shachtman, ‘Inside Darpa’s Secret Afghan Spy Machine’

Albright has noted that Iran has material to build only 12,000-15,000 centrifuges, and if 1,000 to 2,000 were destroyed, this would hasten the demise of its stockpile. But his and other organizations have also noted that after the centrifuges were replaced, Iran stepped up its enrichment program and its overall production of uranium had actually increased in 2010, despite any effects Stuxnet may have had.

Stuxnet required an enormous amount of resources to produce, but its cost-benefit ratio is still in question. While it may have helped set Iran’s program back to a degree, it also altered the landscape of cyberattacks…In the end, Stuxnet’s creators invested years and perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars in an attack that was derailed by a single rebooting PC, a trio of naive researchers who knew nothing about centrifuges, and a brash-talking German who didn’t even have an internet connection at home.

Kim Zetter, ‘How Digital Detectives Deciphered Stuxnet, the Most Menacing Malware in History’

These domestic images must be more than simply one more form of distancing, one more way to remove oneself from the grisly reality behind the words; ordinary abstraction is adequate to that task. Something else, something very peculiar, is going on here. Calling the pattern in which bombs fall a ‘footprint’ almost seems a wilful distorting process, a playful, perverse refusal of accountability – because to be accountable is to be unable to do this work.

These words also serve to domesticate, to tame the wild and uncontrollable forces…The metaphors minimize; they are a way to make phenomena that are beyond what the mind can encompass smaller and safer, and thus they are a way of gaining mastery over the unmasterable. The fire-breathing dragon under the bed, the one who threatens to incinerate your family, your town, your planet, becomes a bet you can pat.

Carol Cohn, ‘Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals’ (1987)

The ways of thinking embodied in institutions govern the way the members of the societies studied by the social scientist behave. The idea of war, for instance, was not simply invented by people who wanted to explain what happens when societies come into armed conflict. It is an idea that provides the criteria of what is appropriate in the behaviour of members of the conflicting societies. Because my country is at war there are certain things which I must do and certain things which I must not do. My behaviour is governed, one could say, by my concept of myself as a member of a belligerent country. The concept of war belongs essentially to my behaviour. But the concept of gravity does not belong essentially to the behaviour of a falling apple in the same way: it belongs rather to the physicist’s explanation of the apple’s behaviour. To recognise this has nothing to do with a belief in ghosts behind the phenomena.

Peter Winch, The Idea Of A Social Science And Its Relation to Philosophy (1958)