Neurotechnology for National Defense: the U.S. and China

| Joy Putney
Joy Putney
Doctoral candidate, School of Biological Science, Georgia Institute of Technology

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Joy Putney is a doctoral candidate in the Quantitative Biosciences Program in the School of Biological Science at Georgia Institute of Technology and a 2020-2021 Sam Nunn Security Fellow.

Bottom Line Up Front: China is better poised to capitalize on disruptive neurotechnologies like brain-computer interfaces (BCI) for both civilian and military usage, so the U.S. must be prepared for the deployment of these capabilities in future operating environments.

In the past decade, seven international actors have launched “Brain Projects” or “Brain Initiatives,” including the United States and China. The U.S. BRAIN Initiative started in 2013 under the Obama administration, and includes plans for $6 billion USD of funding through the year 2025.  The China Brain Project was announced three years later in 2016, along with the country’s Thirteenth Five-Year Plan with estimated funding of $1 billion USD through the year 2030.

These brain initiatives which involve stakeholders from government, academia, military, and industry and direct hundreds of millions of dollars to specific research goals, can be viewed as cohesive articulations of a national strategy for neuroscience research. The outcomes of these initiatives will not only further our understanding of the brain but will also enable new neurotechnologies that will have far-reaching implications for society, public health, and national security.

The United States and China are among the largest spenders in their brain projects and are peer economic and military competitors. The U.S.’ National Defense Strategy in 2018 highlighted long-term, strategic competition with China as a top focus. This competition will naturally include vying for technological advantage, especially with emerging technologies like those enabled by the brain projects, to avoid technological surprise. Here, the specific focus on brain-computer interfaces within the broader category of neurotechnologies is due to their potential for high adoption by healthy people for both civilian and military purposes. Additionally, these devices have profound ethical concerns involving data privacy and individual autonomy. Likely for these reasons, the US Congressional Research Service identified brain-computer interfaces as an emerging dual-use technology that should be considered for export controls.

China has a clearer articulation of their intent to use brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) for both civilian and military purposes. The goals of the brain initiatives in each of these nations are an articulation of national strategy for neuroscience research and technology development, and the U.S. BRAIN Initiative and China Brain Project contrast strongly in their aims. The China Brain Project’s stated goals place a higher emphasis on brain-machine technologies like BCI than the U.S. BRAIN Initiative. The U.S. BRAIN Initiative’s seven major goals only relate to understanding the brain and improving treatment of brain disorders and focus on developing technologies that enable basic research and clinical applications. The China Brain Project’s structure is envisioned as “one body two wings”, with a core body of understanding the brain, with an equal emphasis on the applications—the two wings—of treating brain disorders and developing brain-machine intelligence technologies. In contrast to the U.S. BRAIN Initiative, the China Brain Project puts an equal emphasis on clinical and non-clinical applications of brain research, and specifically emphasizes integrating brain and machine intelligence.

The China Brain Project’s goals also more strongly align with the military rhetoric of the PLA than the U.S. BRAIN Initiative’s goals do with the U.S. military’s active neurotechnology research initiatives. The U.S. DoD has extensively funded neuroscience research, but with divergent aims from the U.S. BRAIN Initiative. DARPA has several ongoing programs developing neurotechnologies, like the Next-Generation Nonsurgical Neurotechnology (N3) program, which seeks to develop non-invasive BCIs with the ability to both read and write brain activity for use by healthy military service members, and the Neural Engineering Systems Design (NESD) program, which seeks to develop BCIs to restore vision and hearing to injured service members. Other neurotechnology development programs have been funded by the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Army, and the U.S. Navy. A comprehensive study from the U.S. Army’s Combat Capabilities Development Command (DEVCOM) highlighted four neurotechnology applications for future operating environments, including visual and auditory augmentation, wearable exoskeletons with programmed muscular control, direct control of weapon systems through BCIs, and brain-to-brain communication between service members. While both the U.S. DoD and the U.S. BRAIN Initiative have funded clinical applications of BCI, the DoD’s emphasis on civilian and military use cases for BCI is not reflected in the US BRAIN Initiative’s goals.

In contrast, the PLA’s rhetoric and the China Brain Project’s goals are more cohesive, driven likely in part by the nation’s overarching strategy of military-civil fusion. The Director of the Central Military Commission Science and Technology Commission (CMC S&TC) in China stated in 2017 that “ The combination of artificial intelligence and human intelligence can achieve the optimum, and human-machine hybrid intelligence will be the highest form of future intelligence.  In strikingly similar language, Dr. Mu-Ming Poo, one of the lead scientists of the China Brain Project, has written on how he believes a better understanding of the brain will revolutionize artificial intelligence (AI) technologies and how he expects China to accelerate “development of next generation AI with human-like intelligence and brain-machine interface technology.” Greater alignment between the national strategy for neuroscience research as articulated by the brain initiatives and defense emphasis on neurotechnology development will likely enable quicker BCI adoption for military usage in China.


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China has fewer sociocultural barriers to BCI adoption for civilian and military usage than the U.S. One of the potential barriers identified by policy experts to the military usage of BCI in the U.S. was distrust of service members. This is reflected in the broader civilian population, where in a 2016 Pew Research survey on human enhancements, 69% of U.S. respondents said they are worried by the idea of BCI technologies and 66% claimed they would not want to use BCI technologies to enhance their brain. Cross-cultural surveys on attitudes towards BCI have not been conducted, so it is difficult to make direct, specific comparisons between U.S. and Chinese citizen’s attitudes towards BCI. However, a cross-cultural study on U.S. and Chinese attitudes towards big data technologies has been conducted; while this 2017 survey does not address BCI technologies directly, BCI technologies are like big data technologies in that they will utilize machine learning and large sampling of potentially individualizable data. U.S. respondents were less likely than Chinese respondents to approve of technologies that involved data collection from individuals. U.S. responders were also strongly averse to the use of big data analytics by the government, where Chinese respondents were mostly favorable to government usage. U.S. respondents were only more favorable of big data analytics usage than their Chinese counterparts when data could be anonymized and used by businesses to improve performance. Data privacy and anonymity were more important to U.S. respondents. BCI technologies by necessity collect data from individuals and can even affect brain activity, so these technologies have features that will make them less appealing for adoption in the U.S.

Additionally, China, due to its government structure, can mandate the usage of BCI technologies both in the civilian and military sectors. There are already media reports of mandatory BCI usage by companies in China where there have not been similar reports in the United States. Both the U.S. and China have seen non-invasive EEG headsets that can read brain activity used in school settings, usually in pilot studies for devices designed to measure focus and attention. However, Chinese state-owned companies that run power plants and train operations have reported usage of this same kind of headset to monitor workers’ attention or sleep/awake status. This application is also advertised by companies operating in the U.S., but no reports exist of it being mandatory to use. While the efficacy of these headsets is likely low due to difficulties interpreting brain activity collected via EEG, this signals that Chinese state companies are more likely to use these types of devices to monitor workers.

The U.S. must prepare now to mitigate the adverse effects of disruptive dual-use neurotechnologies. Neurotechnologies have incredible potential to improve quality of life for people suffering from sensory, motor, or other clinical deficits. Yet they also have the potential to fundamentally disrupt social systems and future operating environments. Both the U.S. and its peer competitor, China, have funded research for BCIs and have stated goals for their usage in future operating environments. While the U.S. likely has greater funding for neuroscience research through the U.S. BRAIN Initiative and a more robust R&D system with greater public-private partnerships, China has fewer barriers to BCI adoption due to its sociocultural climate, government structure, and a more cohesive national strategy for neuroscience research. Additionally, the U.S.’s general R&D advantage is eroding, with China looking to compete with the U.S. on R&D within the next decade.

Many ethical and legal quandaries arise due to human enhancement through BCIs, since these technologies involve the collection and modification of very personal data—an individual’s brain activity. It is important now for the U.S. to consider the ethical, legal, and social implications (ELSI) of BCI usage and take the lead in establishing norms for their usage both in civilian and military contexts. Additionally, the U.S. can capitalize on its current R&D lead for developing BCIs if they can lower sociocultural barriers to adoption. One suggested method for addressing distrust for BCIs is through positive media portrayals of BCI usage.  Regardless, the U.S. must be prepared for BCIs to be utilized in future operating environments by peer competitors and for BCIs to be potential disruptors in civilian contexts.

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The Author is Joy Putney

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