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Soldiers or Cyborgs? The Technology Behind Enhanced Armor

Marine soldiers

Public domain photo by Sgt. Isaac Ibarra

Technological development has always been at the heart of warfare, from longbows to tanks. However, the technology in question now is far beyond what was considered possible even a generation ago. Very soon, cyborg soldiers might not just be the stuff of science fiction anymore — the military has several active projects that work on using technology to enhance a soldier’s human abilities.

Enhanced armor is one of the hottest sectors of development. Different divisions of the U.S. military and other governmental agencies are looking to create the next high-tech piece of armor. Not only will these suits protect soldiers, but they will even give them extra abilities. In the future, some of these suits could have an exoskeleton that enhances physical performance and captures energy, a display that displays real-time data, and even sensors that respond to brain function.

Though it might sound futuristic, these enhanced armors aren’t as far away as one might think. The technology for some enhanced armor is already being tested and certain models are preparing for launch. One of the projects currently under development is an enhanced armor known as TALOS (or the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit). This isn’t just any body suit: aside from more ballistic coverage and increased strength for Special Operations troops, the TALOS development team is hoping to use computers in the suit to increase situational awareness of soldiers. That means that the suit would be able to silently alert the wearer to problems in blind spots — an invaluable tool in a battlefield.

The Department of Defense is also interested in the possibility of merging technology with human physiology. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is specifically working on a project that would implant a microchip into a soldier's brain. This chip would act as a neural interface by converting electrochemical signals sent by neurons in the brain into the binary used in digital communications. Though this sounds like the plot of a sci-fi movie, the neural Engineering System Design (NESD) research program is hard at working trying to make it a reality.

“Today’s best brain-computer interface systems are like two supercomputers trying to talk to each other using an old 300-baud modem,” said Phillip Alvelda, the NESD program manager. “Imagine what will become possible when we upgrade our tools to really open the channel between the human brain and modern electronics.”

It’s not difficult to imagine the kind of advantages this kind of chip would offer in the battlefield. Hands-free communication that doesn’t require external devices is not just convenient but could also be the difference between life or death in a combat zone. And the possible uses for this tech in the future don’t stop there: with more research, one day these chips might also enhance the wearer’s hearing or vision by feeding external digital auditory or visual information into the brain.

Finally, changes on a biological level might be the next step in enhancing soldiers. The military has used drugs that act as a stimulant and affect a soldier’s endurance and is already  developing technology that uses implants or prosthetics to improve strength, endurance, and even cognition. Experts at the U.S. National Intelligence Council predict that brain-machine interfaces that would provide humans with superior abilities could be available as early as 2030.

With all these potential technological developments looming not far in the future, it’s more important than ever to be conscious of the various legal and ethical ramifications of enhancements. When could a soldier “opt out” of an enhancement? How would enhanced and non-enhanced soldiers be integrated into the same unit — or should they be kept separate? How will these enhancements affect current humanitarian laws? Would any of these enhancements affect a soldier’s return and assimilation to civilian life? Adopting a framework to regulate the advance of this type of technology would help to alleviate moral and legislative concerns.  For example, researchers suggest questioning whether the enhancements serve a legitimate military purpose. Is there transparency and full consent on the part of the subjects? Are there robust systems in place to hold those overseeing the advancements accountable? While the technology to transform humans into enhanced warriors is within grasp, it is equally as important to examine the potential effects and outcomes before this technology fully arrives.

Warfare has come a long way in the last century, and the pace of development is only going to accelerate. From miniature drones to enhanced armor, robotics is going to play a large part in the battlefield of the future. Human enhancements that utilize this kind of technology aren’t far off, and even a short time from now we may be looking at humanity’s first cyborg soldiers. Hopefully the world will be ready.