This Scientist Wants Tomorrow’s Troops to Be Mutant-Powered
Greater strength and endurance. Enhanced thinking. Better teamwork. New classes of genetic weaponry, able to subvert DNA. Not long from now, the technology could exist to routinely enhance — and undermine — people’s minds and bodies using a wide range of chemical, neurological, genetic and behavioral techniques.
It’s warfare waged at the evolutionary level. And it’s coming sooner than many people think. According to the futurists at the U.S. National Intelligence Council, by 2030, “neuro-enhancements could provide superior memory recall or speed of thought. Brain-machine interfaces could provide ‘superhuman‘ abilities, enhancing strength and speed, as well as providing functions not previously available.”
Qualities that today must be honed by years of training and education could be installed in a relative instant by, say, an injection or a targeted burst of electricity to the brain. Rapid advancements in neurology, pharmacology and genetics could soon make such installations fairly easy.
These modifications could give rise to new breeds of biologically enhanced troops possessing what one expert in the field calls “mutant powers.” But those troops may not American. So far, the U.S. military has been extremely reluctant to embrace human biological modification, or “biomods.” And that could result in a veritable mutant gap. In this new form of biological warfare, the U.S. could find itself outgunned.
But not if Andrew Herr can help it.
A 29-year-old Georgetown-trained researcher with degrees in microbiology, health physics and national security, Herr is one a handful of specialists in the defense community preaching greater U.S. investment in biomods. First as a consultant with the Scitor Corporation, a Virginia-based firm whose clients include top military and intelligence agencies, and later as the head of his own research organization, Herr’s job has been to think about biological modifications whose effects he says are “more than evolutionary.”
Another word for that: revolutionary.
Whether positive or negative, the impact of routine biomods could be huge. “The best-case scenario is extraordinary increases in quality of life in the First World and beyond,” Herr says. The worst-case scenario, he adds, is people being biologically modified “without them knowing it.” That is, an evolutionary sneak attack.
But it’s not clear how closely the government is listening.
The Once-and-Future Mutant Age
Ten years ago, there were all sorts of biomods enthusiasts roaming the halls of the Pentagon’s premiere science division. In 2002 the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency launched an ambitious effort aimed at tweaking troops’ physiology to reduce their susceptibility to stress, sleep deprivation, fatigue, pain and blood loss while enhancing their memory and learning. The idea was to help soldiers “perform at their peak, stay at their peak,” one former Darpa official told Wired.
The program was called Metabolic Dominance. It promised to produce America’s first mutant warriors.
Progress was slow — understandably so considering the scope and scale of the effort. In 2007 Tony Tether, then Darpa director, downplayed Metabolic Dominance, signaling the beginning of the end of the program. “We’re making it possible for people to be all that they can be, not making them be better than they can be,” Tether told Wired.
By 2008 the science agency had all but abandoned Metabolic Dominance. Herr began his work the next year, studying and advocating biomods for an alphabet soup of military and intelligence clients. In effect, Herr helped pick up the pieces from Darpa’s initial, failed effort.
In 2009 Herr was assigned to a Pentagon-funded project aimed at understanding “unit cohesion.” That is, what makes one group of soldiers keep fighting through hunger, thirst, exhaustion, confusion, and the deaths of comrades. Unit cohesion has won and lost conflicts since the beginning of warfare, but it was still poorly understood.
For his unit cohesion study, Herr interviewed Army infantrymen, Navy submariners and Air Force drone operators. Partway into the two-year study Herr had an epiphany. “The ‘aha’ moment,” Herr tells Danger Room, “was seeing a link between an objective physiological phenomenon — knowing the effects on the body and brain of stress hormones — and how that matched with all the literature on unit cohesion.”
In other words, Herr had a vision of the stress hormones that our glands pump into our bloodstreams in life-or-death situations, and, in turn, impact the behavior of trained combat units. Tracing this physiological blueprint for combat effectiveness, Herr realized it could be altered biologically. “All of sudden the Matrix made sense,” Herr says, referencing the secret world of the eponymous 1999 sci-fi film.
The military could select troops and their officers for their unique, inborn ability to cope with stress. Or it could directly tweak a soldier’s body functions — re-balancing the normal hormonal cocktail so the soldier doesn’t panic, doesn’t retreat and keeps on fighting, even when the odds are against him and any normal person would just give up.
Specific enhancement methods Herr studied include: focused diet and exercise regimens; injections of the stress-inhibiting brain molecule neuropeptide Y; electroshock-style Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation to boost thinking; and gene therapy for enhancing a whole host of body functions by literally altering a person’s DNA with viruses or chemicals.
Following the unit-cohesion study, Herr began teaching individual self-enhancement techniques in Washington, D.C. and Indiana. His students were officers and civilians slated to deploy to Afghanistan under a Pentagon program that embeds American mentors in the Afghan government. Among other tricks, Herr instructed them to minimize brain-stimulating blue light in order to protect their sleep cycles; eat small, frequent, protein-rich meals to maintain steady cognition; and exercise in order to biochemically neutralize the steady stream of stress hormones that advisers experience in their year-long, sometimes dangerous deployments.
Herr says the curriculum fed into his other projects, many of which are classified. “I can’t really talk about those,” he says. Clearly, the techniques Herr taught to the advisers could also be applied to pilots, sub and carrier crews and frontline infantry, for whom the stress is even greater and the work even more critical to U.S. national defense.
But for these combatants, the Pentagon wants to go beyond merely encouraging self-enhancement. Patrick Lin, a professor at California Polytechnic State, notes the military’s “ongoing interest in using pharmaceuticals, such as modafinil (a cognitive enhancer), dietary supplements, as well as gene therapy to boost the performance of warfighters.”
And in February the British Royal Society identified four small-scale DARPA biomodification efforts focusing on stress-reduction and neurological enhancement, plus an obscure Air Force program aimed at the “exploitation of external stimulant technology” to enable airmen “to receive and process greater amounts of operationally relevant information.” That’s generally understood to mean drugs.
Herr says defense planners are discussing a comprehensive strategy to unite these programs and coordinate growing military investment in modification technologies. “What I’ve been working on is trying to support and guide that discussion.” To that end, he has briefed the Defense Science Board, a panel of the Pentagon’s top technology advisers.
A comprehensive biomods strategy would get the Pentagon back to the same conceptual point it was at a decade ago at the launch of Metabolic Dominance — and prove that U.S. military leaders are serious about preparing for the coming era of mutant warfare.
Ready or Not
Whether or not the Pentagon is ready, the biomods bug is spreading, spurred by government programs and, increasingly, privately funded research all over the world. But Herr cautions against expecting biomods to transform society and warfare tomorrow. “We’re still in the foundational phase.”
For its part, the National Intelligence Council expects some resistance to biomods. “Moral and ethical challenges to human augmentation are inevitable,” the Council advised. Americans, especially, tend to have deep reservations about changing people’s biology, Herr points out. That doesn’t mean they won’t do it. He points out increasing acceptance of cognitive-enhancing drugs among American college students. “Seventy to 80 percent of upperclassman have at least once taken these drugs illegally to get better grades,” he says. “If the younger generation in our country is more comfortable with this, then that would make the use of these kinds of things in society, and by extension the military, very different.”
But the U.S. is still likely to move more slowly on biomods than say, China or Russia. “Other countries are probably much more likely to take advantage of these [technologies],” Herr says. “The question will be how they do it.”
“Other countries are also interested in these areas but are not so open as the U.S. about what they are doing, so it is difficult to know exactly what is going on in many cases,” notes Rod Flower, a professor at the William Harvey Research Institute in the U.K. and the chair of the Royal Society’s biomods study. It’s equally hard to tell to which terrorists, militants and criminal groups these countries might have ties — and whether new biological weaponry might proliferate through these channels.
The best-case scenario for biomods, Herr says, is widespread, legal and peaceful use of performance-boosting methods to elevate creativity, potentially leading to technological breakthroughs in other fields that in turn could “really enhance the quality of people’s lives.”
“It would be nice to think that the efforts of military scientists could be put to peaceful uses,” says Flower.
Herr says when it comes to weapons-grade mutations, it’s wisest to focus on worst-case scenarios, albeit only the most plausible one. “What can be useful is a body of research which says here are things, which if they happen, would cause major discontinuities.”
The most realistic future biomods apocalypse is one in which a hostile foreign government or terror group finds ways to subtly change a lot of people. “The worst-case scenario is people could start doing things that wouldn’t be recognized,” Herr says. “At least you can do something about if if you know it’s happening.”
Genetic Sneak Attack
Among his duties at Scitor, Herr was tasked with “red teaming” the performance-enhancement field on behalf of the Defense Department in order to assess the approach America’s rivals are taking to the technology. Drawing on his childhood conversations with his world-traveling parents, Herr concluded that military biomodifications could develop very differently in other countries.
Herr says he achieved a breakthrough in his red-teaming in 2010, while in Boston attending what he describes as a “totally academic, non-military” conference on gene therapy, which typically involves “infecting” a person with a specially tailored virus that can modify DNA and in principle, cure a disease or correct a defect.
But fixing genes is hard. Damaging them is a lot easier, one of the speakers at the Boston conference admitted. “He said if our goal was figuring out how to create muscular dystrophy, we’ve been very successful, but if our goal is to treat it, we’re far from the goal,” Herr recalls. “He meant it as a laugh line. But I’m sitting in the back thinking … it’s kind of scary. They know how to break us but don’t know how to fix us.”
In one dire scenario, an army might attack its enemies by changing their physiology to make them dumber, slower, more afraid. In The Atlantic recently, two researchers even discussed the possibility of governments or terror groups genetically assassinating enemy leaders by tailoring cancers specifically to the target’s DNA. The authors pointed out that the U.S. State Department already surreptitiously collects DNA samples from foreign dignitaries.
There are several ways these theoretical bio-attacks could be accomplished. At an August war game hosted by the Army, Herr and other experts said biological agents could be slipped into an enemy’s food or water supplies or dispersed by air. Herr says it could also be possible to secretly add an agent to a commercial product. “Someone thinks he’s taking protein powder but he’s really taking God-knows-what.”
If America gets caught unaware by some future bio-assault, it won’t be because Herr didn’t try to prepare us. After three years at Scitor, this fall Herr struck out on his own with an ambitious plan to advance the biomods field. He started two companies: one, a research firm called Helicase; the other, a sort of personal consultancy called Cognitrition that Herr says will offer clients advice on “enhancing cognitive performance through nutrition and day-to-day activity.”
That’s right: Herr wants to help people develop their own potential powers. If he’s correct about the future of bio-weaponry, his clients will be just slightly ahead of the curve in the coming mutant age.