A scientist conducting research on behalf of the US Army Research Laboratory (Picture: LANL).
By David Hambling, technology expert
Science fiction is filled with visions of soldiers and spies made stronger, faster and more intelligent through a combination of drugs and technology.
A new report published by a US think tank, the Centre for a New American Security (CNAS), says there are opportunities and risks presented by developments for ‘human enhancement.’
But throughout history, there have been real-world attempts to boost the performance of troops.
During the Second World War, various sides experimented with drugs to gain an advantage over the enemy.
The Germans issued 'pep pills’ - otherwise known as methamphetamine or crystal meth – to keep soldiers and aircrew awake on long missions.
The practice was ended after the side effects were appreciated.
The RAF issued ‘wakey wakey’ pills containing Benzedrine, but these were only to be used in extreme circumstances and came with stern warnings about misuse.
Modern organisations are more cautious about issuing powerful substances, but soldiers have already sought to enhance their own performance with less controversial dietary supplements.
Creatine is taken by many athletes to boost their strength and increase muscle mass.
A survey found that just over a third of US Army Rangers were taking creatine or other dietary supplements.
The CNAS report says if such supplements are found to be safe and effective, they should be used more widely and in a controlled manner.
The so-called 'smart drugs' are supposed to sharpen mental performance.
Recent research has focused on Modafinil, which has become popular with students to help them concentrate and counteract the effects of sleep deprivation.
A study by the US Army Aeromedical Research Laboratory suggested Modafinil “shows promise as an enhancement agent,” and the Ministry of Defence (MOD) has commissioned research into the drug.
Modafinil has not been found to actually boost the intelligence of users but a study with chess players found that after taking the drug they spent longer analysing choices and made better moves, increasing their number of wins by up to 15%.
Direct brain stimulation with electric pulses is a more modern approach which promises the benefits of drugs without the side effects.
Researchers say the technique can alter connections in the brain, making concentration and learning easier, and is already being used by some Olympic athletes as part of their training.
According to Halo Neuroscience, their technology can improve training in snipers and fighter pilots by 50%, and other military services are now exploring it.
The only side effect reported is a tingling sensation or metallic taste in the mouth from the electricity.
However, the technology is still very new, and more studies are needed to establish the long-term effects.
Researchers at the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) have also been looking at boosting the brain through technology.
In a recent demonstration, DARPA showed off what it called a form of ‘telepathic control’, where a swarm of drones were controlled using a brain interface device.
While the technology is still in its early stages, the pilot can not only control the drones remotely, they can also receive sensory signals coming back.
The research suggests the soldiers of the future could evolve into a type of cyborg, linked directly to vehicles, sensors and weapons via brain implants.
Human upgrades are not straightforward though, and legal and moral issues cannot be ignored.
Chief among these is safety and the importance of understanding the long-term effects of an upgrade before it is rolled out.
Not all enhancements require radical chemicals or plugging into the Matrix.
As the CNAS report notes, significant benefits can be gained by using emerging technologies such as personal fitness trackers.
These should be systematically assessed for effectiveness to help improve performance and reduce training injuries. PT – the original soldier enhancement technology.