The (really scary) soldier of the future

Thanks to nanotechnology, he'll be a lethal superman who can heal himself.

Published October 20, 2005 12:50PM (EDT)

Vast government contracts have corrupted the American university system, turning off the fountainhead of unfettered ideas and scientific discovery. Multibillion-dollar federal R&D budgets have replaced the solitary inventor with veritable armies of scientists and engineers in laboratories across the country. Public policy itself has become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.

2005? Try 1961. The paragraph above was taken with only minor changes from President Dwight Eisenhower's famous farewell address.

Things have only gotten worse in 44 years. If Eisenhower was worried about the power and influence of what he called "the military-industrial complex" then, he'd be catatonic now. The risks -- and opportunities -- posed by today's corporate-academic-military behemoth are exponentially greater than in his day. So is the money: Total military spending on basic R&D is probably somewhere between $15 billion and $20 billion per year and rising. Scientists funded by this bottomless war chest are working on mind-blowingly powerful devices that threaten to plunge the world into a deadly new arms race. Oh sure, this stuff could also revolutionize medicine, communications, transportation and every other aspect of human life: the shopworn "spinoff" argument honed for decades by NASA's P.R. machine. But whether humanity will get to use the awesome power of these new technologies -- in particular nanotechnology -- for good rather than ill is one of the key questions of the 21st century.

As a five-star general and the commander of Allied forces in Europe during WWII, Eisenhower was front-row center when the Manhattan Project transformed our reality. He watched a small group of the world's brightest scientists and engineers, with access to the enormous financial resources of the federal government, creating blueprints for machines capable of tearing apart the very fabric of the universe -- followed, in short order, by the conversion of those blueprints into enormous production facilities operated by corporate contractors with even more government funding. The result: a gargantuan arsenal of thermonuclear weapons capable of destroying the world many times over -- a capability previously unknown in the history of war and warriors.

But the insanity of the Cold War pales by comparison to what the military-industrial complex and the scientific-technological elite have in the pipeline for the 21st century. Nuclear war is terrifying but, technologically, it's a one-trick pony. The weapons of the future will be infinitely more diverse and creative. And the driving force behind them, the technological cutting edge, will be nanotechnology.

There has never been anything like nanotechnology. It draws on our accumulated scientific knowledge about how to measure, modify and manipulate the very building blocks of our world: atoms and molecules (see accompanying article). Homo sapiens, the animal world's most skillful toolmaker, has finally begun to create the ultimate toolkit, one that will someday be capable of breaking the world down into its smallest parts (or creating new parts) and putting them back together again in new ways.

For the past five years, unknown to most Americans, the United States has been buying tools for this kit via a strategic program called the National Nanotechnology Initiative. (Full disclosure: I am on a National Research Council committee charged with evaluating the NNI.) One of the NNI's chief purposes is to revolutionize military equipment. In 2003, MIT and the U.S. Army officially opened the flagship nanotech R&D facility, theInstitute for Soldier Nanotechnologies.

This 28,000-square-foot facility in Cambridge, Mass., underwritten by a $50 million grant from the U.S. Army, may very well be the world's most exclusive R&D club. Its members include bluebloods of the old military-industrial complex like Raytheon and DuPont, along with new blood like Zyvex ("providing nanotechnology solutions -- today") and Carbon Nanotechnologies.

According to the original press release, the ISN "combines basic and applied research to create an expansive array of innovations in nanoscience and nanotechnology that will dramatically improve the survivability of soldiers. Current ISN research focuses on several key soldier capabilities, including protection from bullets, blasts and chem/bio threats; automated medical monitoring and treatment; improved performance; and reduced load weight."

This description of research projects -- "protection" from bullets and blasts -- makes them sound purely defensive, but there is simply no way that can be true. Our military knows very well that, ultimately, the best way to "improve the survivability" of a soldier is to eliminate the enemy. If a revolutionary ultra-light nanofabricated material can stop today's bullets, why not use this same material to make tomorrow's bullets? But for real war gamers this logic is only a trivial beginning. It is incumbent upon them to assume that, if we don't make these nanofabricated bullets, somebody else will. And if somebody else can have them, it is further incumbent upon serious war gamers to recommend that a further round of R&D is necessary to protect our soldiers from the nanomaterials initially designed to protect them. These games get much, much deeper ... and they get there really fast. Plus, the most amazing things these folks are factoring into their games undoubtedly remain classified

And so it goes, the endless upward spiral of theoretical escalation driving a downward spiral of research into the small, smaller and, finally, smallest. Research that, enabled by the latest breakthroughs in nanofabrication, will bring imaginary terrors into being. It is exactly this circular logic that has led America to initiate the next global arms race in recombinant DNA-based, nanotechnology-enabled bioweapons.

In two previous articles, this author has reported on the vicious cycle of paranoia that has made "biodefense" the top priority across all federal R&D laboratories. (The biggest untold science and technology story in America is that one-third of all basic research at NIH is now on biodefense. The Federal Biodefense Research conference for fiscal year 2006 will be held at the end of this month.) There is a profound and dangerous Catch-22 clause involving high-technology "biodefense" research, one that we ignore at our own peril.

Put simply, the whole world knows that you can't separate biodefense from biowarfare. This concept was clearly enunciated in the 1972 Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on Their Destruction (signed by the United States on April 10, 1972). Yet, 35 years later, the second Bush administration has given us a policy based on these same two fatally flawed assumptions explicitly recognized in the Bioweapons Convention. Logic error 1: that a defensive bioweapons program differs fundamentally from an offensive program. And logic error 2: that it is possible to defend against biowarfare agents. (Shades of Reagan and Bush's dreams of a defense against ballistic missiles.) The community of nations has universally rejected these assumptions as unfounded and completely incorrect. But as we know, when it comes to deciding the fate of the world there is a higher authority than the community of nations. Or even the American people.

Our bioweapons research programs, enabled by recombinant DNA technology, were frightening enough. But the danger is about to increase exponentially, as "biodefense" research meets nanotechnology.

In high-technology incubators around the world, biotechnology and nanotechnology together are spawning. With the literary imagination for which engineers are famous, the offspring of this union has already been named nanobiotechnology. The overt goal of nanobiotechnology is to completely break down the borders between living and nonliving materials. This goal has the most profound implications for every aspect of human endeavor, but in warfare the consequences of integrating our most powerful technologies are almost beyond comprehension. The fusion of nanotechnology and biotechnology will erase any distinction between chemical, biological, and conventional weapons, altering the face of war (and life) forever.

The key thing to remember is that every military application also has a non-military one: tomorrow's sword will be next week's plowshare (and vice versa). In the nano age, if you aren't very afraid and very excited at the same time, you aren't paying attention.

So just what kinds of military devices are in store for us? We can get an idea simply by examining what the ISN is currently advertising, translating it into English, then extrapolating out another ten years or so.

Energy-absorbing materials

Nanosoldierspeak: "ISN researchers are developing energy-absorbing nanomaterials that will be part of the future soldier's battle suit. These new materials will provide the soldier with protection against ballistics and directed energy, thereby enhancing the soldier's survivability."

Translation: Humans have been seeking "protection against ballistics and directed energy" since the first time someone got hit over the head with a bone, which means we have been seeking this technology since before we were Homo sapiens. Up until now, we have had to drag around a shield or wear heavy armor. But nanotechnology will deliver protection in a way that enhances the performance of our naturally evolved body rather than weighing us down. In fact, when combined with properties like "mechanical actuation and dynamic stiffness," discussed below, people wearing body armor will be moving far faster than those of us relegated to Levis or even Gucci.

Mechanically active materials and devices

Nanosoldierspeak: "ISN researchers are developing nanomaterials that are capable of mechanical actuation and dynamic stiffness. As part of the soldier's battle suit, these adaptive multifunctional materials will improve soldier performance and may provide medical assistance in the field."

Translation: Artificial muscles! Clothing or ultra-lightweight body armor that provides superhuman strength, integrated within the impregnable (sorry, energy-absorbing) body armor under development above. Let's tell it like it is: The ISN wants to build (sorry, nanofabricate), an ultra-light, ultra-strong and ultra-powerful exoskeleton. But the real super-soldier is far more than a human wearing an exoskeleton that imparts inhuman speed, strength and endurance. This nano-enabled exoskeleton will be made of molecular "smart materials" that also create the type of super-sensor powers described below.

Sensors and chemical/biological protection

Nanosoldierspeak: "ISN researchers are developing protective measures that will enable the future soldier to detect and respond to chemical and biological threats. Research is taking place on the development of highly sensitive sensors as well as protective fiber and fabric coatings that can be integrated in the battle suit. These external systems will enhance the soldier's awareness of environmental toxins, thereby providing the soldier with initial protection against chemical and biological agents."

Translation: Evolution has already provided biological life with a "sensorium" capable of detecting individual molecules. That is, the biomolecules inside our bodies can "see" the individual molecules in our environment. Our eyes, for example, can "see" a single photon of light. When we are not distracted, or overwhelmed by the ambient noise of life, all our senses can operate with this type of resolution. But how is such a thing possible? Each atom transmits a unique electromagnetic signature into nearby space. A molecule is a unique group of atoms, so that the space around a molecule has an even more complex signature field. Molecules see and recognize each other via the interaction of these force fields. Sometimes molecular signals merge into a powerful force-field beam that breaks the surface of our macroscopic world. (When uranium undergoes radioactive decay, it emits a beam that's hard for us to miss.) But individual molecules can sense each other every time, all the time -- so that single molecule detection provides near-perfect sensitivity to almost anything that can happen in the physical world.

The ISN will create artificial molecular nanosensors based on the schematics originally built by evolution. Working backward from a successful design is called reverse engineering. So the nanofabricated super-soldier exoskeleton will have an array of reverse-engineered artificial molecular sensors built directly into it. These artificial sensors will be wired into the biological "sensorium" of the soldier. As a result, the nano-enabled combatant will be able to see or sense almost everything in his or her environment. Artificial molecule-scale sensors may start off as external systems to "enhance the soldier's awareness of environmental toxins" or other signals, but this technology can be used to create a whole new set of superhuman senses for anyone, not just soldiers. Someone, somewhere, will soon be able to "sense" almost anything, anywhere in the physical world. Without entering your home, I can know what you are eating, drinking, smoking, wearing, or not wearing. Who gets to have these senses? Will they be installed as passive or active?

Biomaterials and nanodevices for soldier medical technology

Nanosoldierspeak: "ISN researchers are looking at ways to use nanotechnology to improve the way we detect and treat life-threatening injuries such as hemorrhage, fracture, or infection. With new approaches to soldier triage and with automatic first aid for a wounded or disabled soldier, the ISN's goal is to at least begin, if not complete, recovery while the patient is still on the battlefield by developing ways to monitor patient physiology as well as novel materials for wound healing."

Translation: Your camouflage suit is going to sense your metabolic condition and know when you are hurt or wounded. It is going to melt into your wound to stop the bleeding, set your bones, and give you a shot of morphine. To do this, your nanofabricated suit had better have the ability to speak the same language as your living tissue. So using nanotechnology to provide "automatic first aid" ultimately means using molecular sensor systems to detect and respond to the presence of blood cells, serum or antibodies. Basically, the idea is to hack into the CPU of life and interface our biological systems to artificial ones. Make no mistake, we are talking about the ability to hardwire the delivery of medical procedures, drugs or chemicals directly into things worn in or on the body in response to remote signals or sensations. This will undoubtedly save lives on the battlefield, but it also opens up mind-boggling possibilities for behavior modification and control. Instead of an injection when you are wounded, how about an injection when you act in an antisocial manner? Will we have the wisdom to control the machines we have created, especially when they have been built to operate autonomously? In the years ahead, that question will no longer be merely philosophical.

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So, let's take stock. Based simply on the projects posted for public consumption, the ISN is busy creating a soldier of the future who will be protected by an impregnable exoskeleton. This 21st century armor will also impart superhuman strength, reflexes and endurance. It will sense its environment with molecular precision and administer chemicals, pharmaceuticals and other potions directly to the human inside based on pre-programmed stimuli or other command and control signals (global satellite phone link to headquarters ... a battle computer in geosynchronous orbit ... HAL?). It kind of makes one long for the old "mineshaft gap" of the Cold War.

By Alan H. Goldstein

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