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Saturday, May 23rd, 2015
|Fascinating stuff ...
This seems to be something of a theme in recently-reviewed books here, but this title also took a somewhat circuitous route into my hands. I had requested Jonathan D. Moreno's Mind Wars: Brain Science and the Military in the 21st Century
in the May 2012 “batch” of books being offered in the Early Reviewer program over on LibraryThing.com. However, I didn't win
it (instead the “almighty algorithm” deigned to match me with Death Metal Music that month), although I was interested enough in it that I'd put it on my Amazon “wish list” with the anticipation that one day I'd order a copy. However, in August of 2014, Moreno's Impromptu Man came up in LTER, and I requested and won it. The current book came with that as a “throw in” from the publisher … I was amazed that “they remembered” that I'd wanted this (I wrote them, and it was actually purely happenstance), and that's how I got Mind Wars - so it's “sort of” another LTER book.
If not uniquely so, Moreno is certainly well-positioned to have informative views on the subject of “brain science and the military in the 21st Century”, having been described as the most interesting bioethicist of our time, and having served as a senior staff member on three presidential, and a number of Pentagon, advisory committees, as well as holding a chair at University of Pennsylvania in Medical Ethics, and being the US representative to the UNESCO International Bioethics Committee. He grew up in the Medical field, as his father was noted psychologist (see Impromptu Man for his biography of his father), and the younger Moreno was familiar with many of the top researchers of the time.
This actually comes into play at points in this book … as in researching it, Moreno discovered some very disturbing work that had been done by a couple of long-time “family friends”, and he found it hard to reconcile some of the experiments that had been done by these otherwise much-respected scientists. In fact, the book begins in the 60's, where his father had a Hudson-valley location for his institute (and government approval for dispensing LSD), when Dr. Timothy Leary notoriously opened up his much-less-clinical operation just a couple of dozen miles north in Milbrook, NY. While popular culture, understandably, associates LSD with the hippies and related movements, its origin (and initial supply) is much more closely linked with mind-control experiments of the military. This is the “rabbit hole” that Moreno first jumps into. The copy that I have is the second edition … the first, in 2006, really broke new ground, showing:
... that the security establishment's interest and investment in neuroscience, neuropharmacology (the study of the influence of drugs on the nervous system), and related areas was extensive and growing. However, no one had attempted a systematic overview of developments in neuroscience as they might affect national security, nor had anyone raised the many fascinating ethical and policy issues that might emerge from this relationship.
His work lecturing on the initial edition of the book also seemed to have loosened up channels where he'd previously been “hitting walls”, his “prediction that neuroscience would be of increasing interest to national security agencies” was not only borne out, but
... matters moved more quickly than I had guessed. To my surprise, within two years after the first edition of Mind Wars I began to receive invitations to participate on intelligence community advisory committees that have provided important analyses of the state of the science and its future prospects.
While a lot of this book is “gee whiz!” looks at what is being worked on (systems that let users operation machinery – be it a replacement arm or an attack drone – with just one's thoughts, scanners that can “read” the content of thoughts, etc., etc., etc.), a substantial portion of this is rather into the nitty-gritty of the brain, and the details of how they're coaxing that machine to work with machine machines … and with a philosophical overlay across the whole work, putting all this science in the context of the related ethical issues. On this point, here's a bit that I bookmarked in the first chapter, “DARPA on Your Mind”:
It is ironic that discussions about national security often fail to involve the optimal means of ensuring that people are safe to live their lives: keeping the peace. The sad fact is that there is a specific marketplace for the material of war, not of peace. Even though we might like to think that military and intelligence assets ultimately keep the peace, the fact is that it's a lot easier to monetize and market firepower than peaceful easy feelings.
While essentially, un-illustrated, there is one page with diagrams of the brain which I found very useful, especially the one on “the forebrain and brain stem”, which details several systems and subsystems and eventually nearly a dozen specific points – many of which I was only familiar with the name. Moreno almost waxes poetic in his introduction of the brain: “Weighing only about three pounds but containing one hundred billion nerve cells, or neurons, with more possible connections than stars in the universe, the adult human brain is evolution's greatest achievement.” Of course the poetry exists in an environment that is largely funded by DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), so the first use of most of this new tech is so that “ultimately, human abilities may be augmented so that combat soldiers could have vastly more powerful and faster robotic arms and legs, and pilots could control vehicles through intentional thought alone.” Making quadriplegics get up and walk, or thinking your microwave oven into operation, are only happy by-products of the research.
In a discussion of proprioception (from Wikipedia: “the sense of the relative position of neighboring parts of the body and strength of effort being employed in movement”) and how we might get feedback from machines, there is this fascinating section:
Interestingly, tactile feedback may not even be a necessary part of the equation. The Brookings Institution national security scholar Peter W. Singer observes that the “sixth sense” of feeling bodily connected to the tools we use emerges over time. He imagines that controlling a prosthetic arm could become as second nature as driving a car, wherein one develops an intimate knowledge of its maneuverability and size through repeated experience. In the words of philosopher Robin Zebrowski, “it has been shown that our brains actually allot neural space to those tools which we take up consistently. The tip of the cane actually does become part of the person's body, to a degree never before realized. Each of us is bound, bodily, to the tools that we use in a deeply neurological way.” Thus, in a limited sense proprioception may naturally incorporate prosthetics or other neurally controlled robotics as an emergent property, without needing to be engineered from the get-go.
Unfortunately, nothing in the middle five sections of the book, “Mind Games” (Abu Ghraib -like humiliation, Manchurian Candidate -like “brainwashing”, U.S. LSD programs, Soviet ELF – extremely low frequency wave – projects, etc.), “How to Think about the Brain” (“remote viewing” programs that lead into a discussion of historical views of brain/mind duality, the “localism-holism debate”, specific brain region/chemical functions, etc.), “Brain Reading” (various tests, systems, sensors, scans, predictive modeling, etc. that seek to get into people's heads), “Building Better Soldiers” (sleep issues, metabolism issues, reaction time, memory, and processing issues, fear/emotion issues, genetic enhancement issues, etc.), and “Enter the Nonlethals” (various non-killing approaches from drugs, smell, acoustic beams, microwave pain inducers, and the related legal/ethical arguments around these), had anything that jumped out enough to me for me to have flagged with a little bookmark, but I'm hoping the little “laundry list” of topics here will give you a sense of where Moreno was going in those parts of the book.
The final chapter, “Toward an Ethics of Neurosecurity”, is almost a separate treatise in itself, and is pretty much Moreno taking all the details preceding it and giving it his “bioethicist” spin. Let me apologize in advance for the following lengthy quote, but I think it's a key point he's making, and I didn't feel that either my attempting a paraphrase or cherry-picking smaller bits did it justice.
... For those who are deeply concerned about the exploitation of science for military purposes, an obvious answer seems to be that the scientific community should simply swear off cooperation with the national security agencies, including accepting research contracts. Call this the purist approach. Based on some historical experience I shall elaborate, I believe the purist answer is shortsighted. In the real world, this kind of research is going to continue and it's best that university researchers be those who do it, rather than building top secret science fortresses with researchers who are not answerable to anyone but their commanders. It is critical for the well-being of our democratic society that the civilian scientific community is kept in the loop and that the rest of us can have at least a general idea of the kind of work that is being done, even though for legitimate reasons many of the details may not be generally available.
An important reason to keep the scientific process as normal as possible, including transparency in interactions among scientists, is that science sets an example for an open society in which secrecy is minimized. Secrecy makes it harder for our elected representatives to fulfill their constitutional responsibility of overseeing government-funded science, and for experts outside of government to contribute to sound policymaking. One way a democratic society can minimize secrecy is to keep national security agencies linked to the larger world of academic science. For the same reason, suggestions in Congress and elsewhere that DARPA should pull back on its external funding should be resisted. The link between the academic world and the national security establishment makes for a healthier society than if each were isolated from the other.
Now, I feel bad that I've only really been able to scratch the surface of all the amazing work that Moreno details in Mind Wars, but I hope the above gives you a good indication of what you can expect in the book. The new edition has been out a couple of years at this point, but it is still in print, so you at least have a sporting chance of being able to find it in your local brick-and-mortar book vendor. The on-line big boys have it, of course, but aren't cutting much off the cover price (which is quite reasonable for the existing paperback edition). The new/used vendors also don't have it for way cheap, but you might save half off of the retail if you went that way with a “very good” copy (and remember, paperbacks tend to lose condition a lot faster than hardcovers in the after-market).
I really liked this one, the writing is crisp and intelligent, and Moreno makes a valiant effort to make a lot of difficult concepts approachable. That said, there were parts of this that were somewhat of a slog, simply due to the density/complexity of the material involved. If you're interested in military stuff, mind stuff, tech stuff, heck, even drug stuff, you'll probably going to get a lot out of this. I'm excited to pass my copy along to my engineering student daughter, who is focused on robotics and was fascinated to hear me talk about the “thought control” elements detailed here!