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Superhuman Abilities: They’re Not Fantasy. They’re Fact.

U.S. Army Soldier Protection System.
Image via the U.S. Army ASC.
Superhuman abilities have always been a part of mankind. Mankind has not been in regular possession of them. But he has written about them and wished for them, and he has recognized them in the spiritual world.

Modern man has unique views on them, with some people considering them nothing more than childish dreams.

Yet while some people believe the idea of superhuman people is something serious adults don’t consider, serious adults know that superhuman enhancement isn’t fantasy; it’s already fact.

What follows is the latest news on superhuman abilities, along with what the world can expect to happen as they expand and grow in complexity.

Intelligence analysts make sense of current events and trends. But they also produce assessments forecasting what might happen. Science and technology has advanced far enough that intelligence analysts forecasting what the future might look like now regularly talk about the development of superhuman abilities.

In fact, the U.S. National Intelligence Council devoted a subsection of its 2012 strategic report, “Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds,” to human augmentation (pp. 96-97) and how such emerging advancements will affect the world.

The National Intelligence Council likely will publish its “Global Trends 2035” report sometime in the next few months (although that could change). Expect human enhancement to again be a part of this report.

Emerging superhuman capabilities are such an important issue that people are even briefing the U.S. Congress on them. The Senate Armed Services Committee held a hearing on the Future of Warfare in November of 2015, and part of the witness statement of Paul Scharre (identified then as the Senior Fellow and Director of the 20YY Warfare Initiative for the Center for a New American Security) included the following comments.

An important asymmetry between the United States and potential adversaries is the uneasiness with which human enhancement technologies are viewed in the United States. While there are no legal or ethical objections per se to human enhancement, they raise many legal and ethical issues that must be addressed. Experiments with cognitively enhancing drugs and training techniques can and have been performed in military labs, meeting stringent legal and ethical requirements. However, there remains a cultural prejudice in some military communities against human enhancement, even for treatments that have been shown to be both safe and effective. The Department of Defense currently lacks overarching policy guidance to the military services to articulate a path forward on human performance enhancing technologies.

Iron Man is a popular superhero but the term “Iron Man” has also become associated with a specific research and development effort that the Department of Defense is working on that aims to create wearable technologies for warfighters. This R&D effort is actually known as the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit (TALOS), and if it succeeds it will bring to the real world what many people would consider to be superhero-like capabilities.

But while TALOS might be the most prominent example of emerging superhuman abilities, it is far from the only example. And wearable technology is far from the only science and technology being developed towards a superhuman end.

Biological superhuman enhancement is on the horizon—maybe still the distant horizon, but the horizon nonetheless. And a biologically enhanced human would make for a great warfighter. So it’s no surprise that news of research efforts to biologically enhance humans is coming from the Department of Defense and defense industry.

National Defense Magazine published an article in August discussing, “How Technology Could Create ‘Super Soldiers.’”

The article went into detail on a few different ways researchers and developers are exploring to enhance warfighters.

To enable troops to essentially be smarter, scientists at the Air Force Research Laboratory are exploring the implications of transcranial direct current stimulation, or TDCS. The process entails attaching electrodes to a person’s head and passing a low-intensity electrical current to the brain.
“We are seeing slight increases in attention and in learning,” said Rajesh Naik, chief scientist at AFRL’s 711th human performance wing.

As you might expect, working to create biological superhumans bring concerns with it.

Scharre said the Defense Department is being overly cautious when it comes to withholding these types of performance enhancers.
“We’re certainly raising almost a generation of young folks today on study drugs for ADHD,” he said. “How is Ritalin scary? If we could give a low, safe dose … to a fighter pilot or an intel analyst or a sniper to improve their concentration and performance, why would we not want to do that?
“These ethical concerns have to be balanced against the ethical responsibility that the military has to give soldiers a game-changing technology if it will save their lives on the battlefield,” he added.
Potential adversaries are unlikely to have the same wariness about giving their troops performance-enhancing drugs, Scharre said.

Genetically manipulating people to create superhuman abilities is another area military researchers inevitably are exploring, even if those researchers aren’t working for the U.S. Department of Defense.

One road that the Defense Department isn’t heading down to create better warfighters is genetic manipulation of humans. There are multiple reasons for that, according to Naik.
“Ethics clearly, but also the science,” he said. “We don’t really understand it. It is much more complex” than people imagine. . . .
Meanwhile, potential foes could forge ahead with these types of technologies including those that could enable troops to control artificial limbs or other appendages with their brains. That possibility creates difficult dilemmas for the United States, noted Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“How far will we go with biological augmentation? I would argue that’s a legal and ethical question that we’re going to have to” answer, he said at a conference earlier this year. “What might our adversaries do with that technology is something that we need to be able to understand. It’s not just do we want to do it, but if somebody else does it, how do we or can we counter it?”

Small Wars Journal published an August article that went into further detail on how genetically modifying people might result in superhuman abilities.

With the rapidly advancing field of genomics and gene modification, the distinct possibility has arisen for applying these technologies to enhance a soldier’s physical capacity. Genetic modification or “gene doping”, already banned from its possible future use in the Olympics, has many further applications that could enhance the operational performance of soldiers. Conceptual frameworks illuminate the “realm of the possible” which, if implemented, could in reality realize the much fabled concept of the “super soldier”.

The article detailed that genetic modification potentially could lead to enhanced endurance and strength, along with increased pain tolerance and increased energy.

Military and related researchers and developers might make the most high-profile stories about advances in creating superhuman abilities, but they aren’t the only ones interested in them.

The civilian world is thinking about them too.

Police and criminal justice professionals constantly are looking for new technologies and advancements. And superhuman abilities are something they are considering.

The RAND Corporation published, “How Will Technology Change Criminal Justice?” in January of this year. The article noted that, “These were not predictions of what will happen, but wish lists of technologies that could help police keep up with an ever-innovating society and its criminals.”

At the same time, it also said that, “These are not Robocop visions of a far-distant future. RAND brought together law enforcement officers, academics, technology experts, and professional futurists and asked them to envision how crime, policing, and society itself might evolve in the coming years—and what technologies police would need to keep up.”

Some of what they envisioned was superhuman abilities. “At the farthest edge of that vision—the hazy ‘third horizon’ in futures-speak—the RAND panelists imagined micro-drone surveillance dust, exoskeletons, and implanted ‘brain bots.’” But they also added that, “None of those ranked very highly in need, usefulness, or reality.”

It might not be that surprising that police and criminal justice professionals are thinking about superhuman abilities and how they might affect their professions. After all, they are a step or so below military forces. But it might come as a surprise that other civilians are thinking about how superhuman abilities will affect the everyday person as such abilities become more prevalent and more spectacular.

Pew Research Center released an extensive article called, “Human Enhancement –The Scientific and Ethical Dimensions of Striving for Perfection,” in July of this year.

But thanks to recent scientific developments in areas such as biotechnology, information technology and nanotechnology, humanity may be on the cusp of an enhancement revolution. In the next two or three decades, people may have the option to change themselves and their children in ways that, up to now, have existed largely in the minds of science fiction writers and creators of comic book superheroes.

Pew simultaneously released survey results titled, “U.S. Public Wary of Biomedical Technologies to ‘Enhance’ Human Abilities.”

Both the article and survey are fascinating reads for those interested in the subject of superhuman enhancement in the civilian world. But for those who want a shorter version, Pew also released a video on the topic in September.

Superhuman abilities will remain at the forefront of contemporary times. And while they might still most often be thought of and discussed in the context of superhero movies, comic books, and other pop culture, they will increasingly become part of public consciousness in the real world as well.