Socio-Ethical Implications of Implantable Technologies in the Military Sector

By on June 29th, 2017 in Editorial & Opinion, Magazine Articles, Societal Impact

Nanotechnology in the Military

The military sector has been investing in nanotechnology solutions since their inception. Internal assessment committees in defense programmatically determine to what degree complex technologies will be diffused into the Armed Forces. The broad term nanotechnology is used in this Special Issue of IEEE Technology and Society Magazine to encompass a variety of innovations, from special paint markers that can determine unique Identity, to RFID implants in humans. With the purported demand for these new materials, we have seen the development of a fabrication process that has catapulted a suite of advanced technologies in the military marketplace. These technologies were once the stuff of science fiction. Now we have everything from exoskeletons, to wearable headsets with accelerated night vision, to armaments that have increased in durability in rugged conditions along with the ability for central command without human intervention. Is this the emergence of the so-called super-soldier, a type of Iron Man?

Social Implications: Key Questions

This special issue is predominantly based on proceedings coming from the 9th Workshop on the Social Implications of National Security, co-convened by the authors of this guest editorial. The workshop focused specifically on human-centric implantable technologies in the military sector. Key questions the workshop sought to address with respect to implants included:

  1. What are the social implications of new proposed security technologies?
  2. What are the rights of soldiers who are contracted to the defense forces in relation to the adoption of the new technologies?
  3. Does local military law override rights provided under the rule of law in a given jurisdiction, and 1 what are the legal implications?
  4. What might be some of the side effects experienced by personnel in using nanotechnology devices that have not yet been tested under conditions of war and conflict?
  5. How pervasive are nanotechnologies and microelectronics (e.g., implantable technologies) in society at large?

We have seen the development of a fabrication process that has catapulted a suite of advanced technologies in the military marketplace.

More broadly the workshop sought to examine socio-ethical implications with respect to citizenry, the social contract formed with the individual soldier, and other stakeholders such as industry suppliers to government, government agencies, and the Armed Forces [1].

DARPA’s RAM Project

In 2012, the U.S. military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) confirmed plans to create nanosensors to monitor the health of soldiers on battlefields [2]. In 2014, ExtremeTech [3] reported on a 2013 DARPA project titled the “Restoring Active Memory (RAM) Project.” Ultimately the aim of RAM was:

“to develop a prototype implantable neural device that enables recovery of memory in a human clinical population. Additionally, the program encompasses the development of quantitative models of complex, hierarchical memories and exploration of neurobiological and behavioral distinctions between memory function using the implantable device versus natural learning and training” [4].

Several months later, the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) published on their web site an article on how DARPA was developing wireless implantable brain prostheses for service members and veterans who had suffered traumatic brain injury (TBI) memory loss [5]. Quoting here from the article:

“Called neuroprotheses, the implant would help declarative memory, which consciously recalls basic knowledge such as events, times and places…”

“these neuroprosthetics will be designed to bridge the gaps in the injured brain to help restore that memory function… Our vision is to develop neuroprosthetics for memory recovery in patients living with brain injury and dysfunction.”

“The neuroprosthetics developed and tested over the next four years would be as a wireless, fully implantable neural-interface medical device for human clinical use.”

The U.S. DOD also noted that traumatic brain injury has affected about 270 000 U.S. service members since 2000, and another 1.7 million civilians. The DOD said that they would begin to focus their attention on service members first [6]. Essentially the program is meant to help military personnel with psychiatric disorders, using electronic devices implanted in the brain. Treated disorders range from depression, to anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder [7]. The bulk of the70millionUSDfiveyearprojectfundingwasdistributedtoUCLA(15 million) and the University of Pennsylvania ($22.5 million), in collaboration with the Minneapolis-based biomedical device company Medtronic [8].

Recommended Reading

F. Allhoff, P. Lin, D. Moore, What is Nanotechnology and why does it matter? From Science to Ethics, West Sussex, Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.

S.J. Florczyk and S. Saha, “Ethical issues in nanotechnology,” J. Long-Term Effects of Medical Implants, vol. 17, no. 3, pp. 107-113,2007.

A. Krishnan, Military Neuroscience and the Coming of Neurowarfare, London, Routledge, 2017.

K. Michael, “Socio-ethical Implications of the Bionic Era”, Academy of Science in Australia,, Shine Dome, Canberra, 25/05/17.

R.A. Miranda, W.D. Casebeer, A.M. Hein, J.W. Judy, E.P. Krotkov, T.L. Laabs, J.E. Manzo, K.G. Pankratz, G.A. Pratt, J.C. Sanchez, D.J. Weber, T.L. Wheeler, G.S.F. Ling, “DARPA-funded efforts in the development of novel brain-computer interface technologies,” Journal of Neuroscience Methods, vol. 244,, 2015.

M. Murphy, “The US Military Is Developing Brain Implants to Boost Memory and Heal PTSD,” Defense One, 2015;, 17/11/15.

M. Orcutt, “DARPA’s New Neural Implant Has a Sneaky Way of Getting Inside Heads,” M.I.T. Tech. Rev., 2016;, 09/02/16.

D. Ratner, M. Ratner, New Weapons for New Wars: Nanotechnology and Homeland Security, New Jersey, Prentice Hall, 2004.

P.S. Saha and S. Saha, “Clinical trials of medical devices and implants: Ethical concerns,” IEEE Eng. Med. & Biol. Mag., vol. 7, pp. 86–87, 1988.

S. Saha and P. Saha, “Biomedical ethics and the biomedical engineer: A review,” Critical Reviews in Biomedical Eng., vol. 25, no. 2, pp. 163–201, 1988.

P. Tucker, “The Military Is Building Brain Chips to Treat PTSD,” The Atlantic, 2014;, 29/05/2014.

More Information

Visual proceedings of the 9th Workshop on the Social Implications of National Security, including powerpoint presentations, are available [9]. The workshop was held during the 2016 IEEE Norbert Wiener Conference, at the University of Melbourne, Australia. Several DARPA-funded neurologists from the Vascular Bionics Laboratory at the University of Melbourne were invited to present at the workshop, including a team led by Thomas Oxley, M.D. [10]. (Oxley did not personally appear as he was in the U.S. on a training course related to intensive neurosurgical training.)

The military implantable technologies field at large is fraught with bioethical implications. Many of these issues were raised at the Workshop, and remain unanswered. If there is going to be a significant investment in advancing new technologies for soldiers suffering from depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the military, there needs to be commensurate funding invested to address unforeseen challenges. In fact, it is still unclear whether U.S. service members must accept participation in experimental brain research if asked, or if they can decline in place of other nonintrusive medical help.


Katina Michael

MG. Michael

Jai C. Galliot

Rob Nicholls