Wars of the future might be decided through manipulation of people's minds, concludes a report this week from the UK's Royal Society. It warns that the potential military applications of neuroscience breakthroughs need to be regulated more closely.
"New imaging technology will allow new targets in the brain to be identified, and while some will be vital for medicine, others might be used to incapacitate people," says Rod Flower of Queen Mary, University of London, who chairs the panel that wrote the report.
The report describes how such technology is allowing organisations like the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to test ways of improving soldiers' mental alertness and capabilities. It may also allow soldiers to operate weaponry remotely through mind-machine interfaces, the report says.
Other research could be used to design gases and electronics that temporarily disable enemy forces. This potentially violates human rights, through interference with thought processes, and opens up the threat of indiscriminate killing. The panel highlights the time that Russian security forces ended a hostage siege in a Moscow theatre in 2002 by filling the venue with fentanyl, an anaesthetic gas. Along with the perpetrators, 125 hostages died.
The Chemical Weapons Convention is vague about whether such incapacitants are legal. Ambiguities like this must be ironed out, say the panellists.