DARPA, the often secretive research unit of the Pentagon devoted to sponsoring “revolutionary, high-payoff research,” has recently turned its attention to neuroscience. DARPA is best known for creating the precursor of the internet, and for decades lavished its considerable resources on high-end physics. It should not be surprising that the Defense Department is now interested in the brain.
As Sharon Begley recently wrote in the WSJ:
Darpa has good reason to fund neuroscience. Discoveries and new technologies such as noninvasive imaging to detect what the mind is doing might help analysts, pilots and grunts process and react better to barrages of data, and allow real-time assessment of head injuries on the battlefield. Brain-computer interfaces in which thoughts are electronically translated into signals that operate a computer or prosthetic limb might improve rehab for soldiers suffering grievous injuries.
Well, that doesn’t sound so scary. Who wouldn’t support better prosthetic limbs? At the moment, it appears that most of DARPA’s research seeks to “make better soldiers,” allowing pilots to stay alert longer, and to improve the cognitive abilities of the average grunt. For example, I thought this project sounded pretty interesting:
In February, DARPA said it was interested in ways to use EEGs to detect when a brain had found what it was looking for in a photograph, such as a familiar face in a crowd.
Of course, DARPA is also interested in some less benevolent technology as well. (We just don’t know about it yet.) In his calm, comprehensive and fascinating new book Mind Wars, Jonathan Moreno documented the ethical quandaries that DARPA’s research will confront in the future.
First of all, there’s the issue of being funded by the military in the first place. Moreno describes how, during the McCarthy era, the FBI monitored the loyalty of scientists more closely than that of any other group. Scientists were given funding to pursue their pet research projects, but only on the condition that they also produce data with relevance to the military, that would then be kept classified. The truth of the matter is simple: the secretive ethos of working for the Defense Department often clashes with the peer-reviewed process of modern science.
Secondly, there’s the issue of unintended consequences. Much of DARPA’s research sounds pretty harmless right now, but there’s no telling where advances in brain imaging and mind control might take us in the future. Moreno persuasively insists that scientists, especially those being funded by the Pentagon, confront the future technologies that their research might make possible. (i.e., implanting dictatorial electrodes in the rodent brain might make such devices possible in the human brain, which would be downright nightmarish.) There are serious ethical quandaries here, and the only way to properly deal with them is to confront them in advance.
In the end, Moreno’s message is simple: taking money from the Pentagon isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it worked wonders for physics – but it has to be done with open eyes.
What do you think? Is there something inherently wrong with investigating the brain with the Defense Department’s money? What type of brain research, if any, should DARPA avoid? There are no easy answers here, but if you’re interested in the difficult questions, then I recommend Mind Wars.
[Note: The first line of this post originally used the word "clandestine". As a few commenters noted, DARPA itself isn't clandestine. Of course, they often insist on classifying research for military purposes. I have changed the first line of the post.]