12/04/2006

Review: Mind Wars: Brain Research and National Defense

Basic science has always had military applications, but only relatively recently has the defense industry actively funded and solicited scientists to optimize war. In "Mind Wars," Jonathan Moreno analyzes the military's intense interest in modern neuroscience from historical, scientific, and ethical perspectives.

A famous historical example of military funding basic science is the British intelligence services' employment of thousands of mathematicians - including artificial intelligence pioneer Alan Turing - to decipher the Enigma encryption system during World War II. Both the simultaneous development of the ENIAC computer and the role of Vannevar Bush (another artificial intelligence pioneer) as Roosevelt's science advisor helped to solidified the defense industry's interest in advanced mathematics and computer science.

Far less famous is the long-standing interest of the military in the behavioral sciences, which Jonathan Moreno carefully traces back to its roots in the psychological analyses of American soldiers in the 1950s to improve training and recruiting techniques. Moreno estimates that the military - including KUBARK, the codename for what would come to be known as the CIA - was the real source of nearly all federal funding for 1950's behavioral sciences. More than a third of American research psychologists were funded through such channels (frequently without their knowledge). This startling conclusion is validated by the involvement of several 1950's psychologists in the development of interrogation techniques (involving psychological torture and humiliation) as well as even by contemporary psychology's involvement in the Abu Ghraib scandal (and refusal by the American Psychological Association to critcize such practices).

After this historical introduction, "Mind Wars" turns its focus to the potential military applications of neuroscience - a field that represents the convergence of medical, computer and behavioral science, into each of which the military has poured enormous sums for decades. Moreno covers several existing programs, including the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's (DARPA) Augmented Cognition (AugCog) and Preventing Sleep Deprivation (PSD) programs, involving the use of "smart drugs" like modafinil and CX717, as well as the development of nonlethal weapons such as hypersonic "high intensity directed acoustics" or microwave-radiating "active denial systems." Moreno also cautiously discusses some of the military's future directions, such as "rapid onset brain-targeted bioweapons," with a careful eye towards what is technically feasible and what is merely hype.

In what is probably the best part of "Mind Wars" (and unexpectedly so, at least for me), Moreno discusses the ethical implications of neuroscience's involvement with the military. Moreno admits that he is no "loose cannon" - indeed, he has given invited testimony to Congress, has served on two presidential ethics commissions, and is an advisor to the Department of Homeland Security. Nonethelesss his analysis is incredibly even-handed, bringing up topics like the philosophy of "dual use" for military science, the history of the practice of informed consent (which actually began in the military decades before it was used in academia), and the privacy implications of new neurotechnology.

The book itself is written in a highly conversational tone, filled with interesting and relevant personal anecdotes (of which Moreno has many; his father was a psychiatrist involved in the military testing of LSD). Moreno's sources are well cited, where possible: many of his government contacts declined to be identified by name.

"Mind Wars" will likely be enjoyed by both neuroscientists, psychologists, and lay people alike, although experts are likely to be familiar with most of the existing technologies and programs that Moreno reviews. On the other hand, the historical and ethical treatment of military neuroscience are the most timeless contributions of "Mind Wars" to this debate, and will be interesting to anyone with an interest in science and its applications.

Related Posts:
Jonathan Moreno on "Mind Wars" (Podcast; thanks Neurophilosopher!)
Review: Rhythms of the Brain
Review: I of the Vortex
Review: Darwin Among the Machines
Review: Everything Bad Is Good For You
Review: The Future of the Brain
Review: The Three Pound Enigma

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