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Superhumans: Coming to a Military Force Near You

© Paul Hair
Editorial Note: Originally published at BarbWire on February 08, 2016.

Superhumans might seem like pure fantasy but they are not. The armed forces of the world are actively working on creating them.

Media have focused attention on how the U.S. Department of Defense is attempting to create a so-called Iron Man suit. But there is more going on than just this. There are already talks about military forces (not necessarily American ones) manipulating DNA and genetic structures to create enhanced humans or superhumans. I wrote about this in the summer of last year.

So what’s the latest that is happening with research and development of superhuman technologies and capabilities? I contacted someone who is interested in future trends and asked him for his thoughts on it.

Zoltan Istvan is a transhumanist and the author of philosophical novel, The Transhumanist Wager. He also is a candidate in the 2016 U.S. Presidential race. Mr. Istvan believes in using radical science and technology to improve the human being and the human experience; he advocates for becoming a machine eventually. Mr. Istvan writes transhumanist themed columns for Vice and the Huffington Post, and also contributes to Gizmodo, Tech Crunch, and other publications.

Mr. Istvan and I have fundamentally different philosophical and theological beliefs. Others who share some of his beliefs do not necessarily share all of them. But the focus of this assessment is on forecasting what the future holds regarding military forces and superhumans, and Mr. Istvan has worthwhile insight on future technological trends.

One of the first things I asked Mr. Istvan is what global armed forces (or governments in general) are doing in attempting to create superhumans.

“The military is interested in building superhumans because it’s becoming unacceptable to have human beings die on the battlefield,” Mr. Istvan told me. “With embedded journalists covering everything, it’s just too dramatic for the American people to watch their troops killed. So the American military is interested in superhumans and outright machines that fight for us. In the case of superhumans, they’ll be able to survive much better. In the case of machines, they are disposable.”

But he also noted the pursuit of superhumans is more than just about troop safety and concern for optics; it’s about effectiveness as well.

“Of course, this isn’t the only reason the military wants superhuman soldiers—they also want them to win wars and be better at fighting for America,” he explained.

And it isn’t just military forces that are researching and working on developing superhuman capabilities: the private sector is heavily involved in this as well.

“Some of the most important technology for superhuman advancement is not just coming from the military, but from transhumanist engineers who love technology and want to use it to live longer and better,” Mr. Istvan said. “Google’s various companies are trying to create various forms of superhuman technology. And so are many startups in Silicon Valley, including those of exoskeleton technology. They want to mass market such tech because fortunes can be made and lives improved.”

But is the quest to create superhumans a realistic one or is it a fool’s errand? Mr. Istvan believes it’s realistic.

“The question of creating superhumans is not whether it’s possible, but how soon,” he said. “I’m guessing within 15 years, over half of Americans will have some type of implant or computer chip in their body (I have an RFID implant in my hand). And there are already biohackers out there who want to cut off their arm to put on robotic ones which can be integrated into their neural system.”

Mr. Istvan expanded on what he foresees happening, explaining what new capabilities and technology will emerge and when.

“Within 30 years, many young people will opt to amputate limbs and cut out body parts to get machine upgrades. The robotic eye will be incredibly popular, since all communication and media will be able to be done through it—and its vision capabilities will be so much better than natural eyes,” he said. “The human eye can only see 1% of the universe. A robot eye can already see much more, and in the last few years there’s been much success with getting blind people to use robotic eyes to restore their vision.”

Mr. Istvan sees technologies and capabilities going even further—to where they will begin enabling longer lives.

“For me personally, the robotic heart is the most important invention that will happen in the next 15 years. A third of everyone dies from heart disease. We need to get rid of our biology, which is literally killing us, and put in machine parts, like we would do for a car,” he said. “Already, one company in France has robotic hearts which are replacing human hearts. In 10 years, given better tech, that robotic heart may already be better than the heart of an Olympian.”

Military research and development of technologies and capabilities have progressed far enough that people are now briefing Congress on superhumans. A member of the Center for a New American Security spoke about them before the Senate Armed Services Committee in November 2015.

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.

No one can say for sure what will happen in the future. However, when you examine the continually emerging information regarding what global armed forces and the private sector are doing with research and development, you see legitimate evidence suggesting that the march towards the creation of superhumans has started—that the concept isn’t simply fantasy any longer.

Superhuman abilities will become a reality someday, and the armed forces of the world will likely play a key role in developing them. It’s just a matter of when it happens, which superhuman abilities will come first, and how the world reacts when it happens.