Since the dawn of time humankind has harbored two dreams: space and immortality. The first, the “next frontier” par excellence, was conquered during the Cold War and is, today, at the center of a new competition among the world–great powers in which the focus has been shifted from the Moon to Mars and from minutes-long walks to the establishment of time-resistant human colonies.
The second (and ultimate) frontier is still unattainable, although studies on longevity state and promise to make the “fourth age” possible (and livable), but scientific progress is advancing in the direction of a phenomenon deeply linked to the theme of immortality, if intended as the deification of the human being, that is transhumanism.
Transhumanism is a cultural and scientific movement that advocates research in the field of human enhancement and yearns for the construction of a homo novus by means of cutting–edge drugs, serums, drugs and therapies that may be able to indefinitely increase physical performance and cognitive–intellectual skills. Unethical and potentially catastrophic for some, ineluctable and desirable for others, what we know so far is that transhumanism is slowly but inevitably making its way into academic circles – not only of the West – and has found fertile ground (and application) in a specific sector: the military.
Transhumanism, the final frontier
On February 10, the Gatestone Institute, a well–known conservative American think tank, published a long–read article suggestively titled “China is creating a new superior race“.
The truthfulness and quality of the content could be attacked by resorting to argumentum ad hominem, but the dilatory technique would prove counterproductive because the author has simply, but egregiously, condensed the latest news – publicly available – coming from the military application of transhumanism, choosing to focus on the studies that are being conducted in China.
As the Gatestone Institute reports, one of the reasons why “China has [become] the national security threat No. 1 [of the United States]” is that it would be conducting “human testing on members of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in hope of developing soldiers with biologically enhanced capabilities”. According to John Ratcliffe, the National Intelligence’s former head, the US secret services have gathered evidence showing the existence of a plan to achieve “biological dominance”.
In support of the disturbing thesis, the author cites some events that, although recent, have (intentionally?) had none or scarce risonance, including the illegal experiments of Dr. He Jiankui in gene–editing of human embryos, the experiments of the geneticist Bing Su on the “humanization” of monkeys by inserting the MCPH1 gene into their brain (a reminiscence of the twentieth-century attempts to create the so-called “chimpanzee”) and the PLA’s research on “a new concept of biotechnology” functional to the improvement of the soldiers’ physical performance.
It is not known what evidence US intelligence gathered about China’s alleged biological dominance program, but Ratcliffe, who is presumed to have viewed it in the light of his (former) role, stated that “there are no ethical boundaries to Beijing’s pursuit of power”; strong words that could be reflective of a certain gravity.
The accusations against Beijing come not only from intelligence circles, but also from academia. For instance, Brandon Weichert, a political scientist who closely follows any news related to human enhancement for military purposes, is of the opinion that “China is run by a regime that believes in the perfectibility of mankind, and with the advent of modern genetic and biotechnology research, China’s central planners now have the human genome itself to perfect according to their political agenda”.
According to Weichert, “Chinese scientists already are on the road of gene-doping”, nay they would be carrying out research whose purpose is to build “smarter and more innovative future generations”. The statements of the political scientist would find a (partial) confirmation in the fact that He was not, and is not, a stereotyped and cartoonish mad scientist: just like him – and before him –, some researchers from Guanzhou’s Sun Yat-sen University conducted genetic experiments on human embryos in April 2015.
China is not alone
China isn’t the only power obsessed with transhumanism and human enhancement. Research on the development of super-soldiers, demigods designed to kill and to think like machines, was carried out during the World War Two by Nazi Germany (Josef Mengele) and the Japanese Empire, and during the Cold War by the Soviet Union and the United States (Stargate project).
The world has changed profoundly from the 1930s to today, but the pursuit of the super soldier, be it through genetic engineering or be it through drugs and serums, seems to have been eternalized up to the point of becoming an integral part of the modus cogitandi of the great powers. Indeed, China is not the only actor who is (or would be) conducting experiments and studies on the military application of transhumanism and human enhancement theories.
Last December, for example, as Paolo Mauri wrote in our columns, the ethics committee of the French armed forces greenlighted “the use of medical treatments, prostheses and implants to improve physical, cognitive, perceptive and psychological abilities. of a soldier […] and to enable connectivity with weapon systems and other soldiers”. The last point, explained otherwise, would involve “a sort of human–machine integration that would transform soldiers into bionic organisms capable of resisting fatigue, pain, stress and of connecting with other assets on the battlefield in a revolutionary way, ie by integrating transmitters and sensors in the human body”.
Different scenario and refined terminology – after all, the Macron presidency had to make the program palatable to public opinion and above all to NATO allies – but the core is unchanged, since it is unalterable: “France must maintain the operational superiority of its armed forces in a challenging strategic context ”, that is a more sophisticated way to say “we are seeking biological dominance”.
The arrival of cyberkillers
Captain America–style supersoldiers are expected to be employed in the theaters of war, and to carry out high–risk operations, with the double result of reducing the death rate on battlefield and of creating a limited club of hyperpowers drawing their strength from the military application(s) of human enhancement. History teachers that today’s science fiction is tomorrow’s science, that’s why the topic should be treated with seriousness.
The present–day way of making and conceiving war is going to be further upset by an epoch–making revolution which is slowly germinating in the cyber–sphere. Tomorrow’s wars, indeed, are going to be fought by both supersoldiers and cyberkillers, with the latter meaning hackers able to kill someone from home through laptop or smartphone.
Tomorrow’s cyberwarfares may have the potential to kill people because, as the Rand Corporation argued recently, “any device can be hacked, including one inside the human body; and we need to really think through the privacy and security implications of devices that live with us”. Written and explained in a different way, the above–mentioned passage means, very simply, that, while the cyber–armies of the 2010s harmed their enemies by hitting strategic infrastructures, stealing sensitive data and injecting virus within their operative systems, in the next future we may witness to the rise of human–killing hackings – and people are going to die because of them.
From Canada to the United States, Rand Corporation ascertained that research on the weaponization of the Internet of Things and of the Internet of Bodies are underway and they are already bearing fruits. In Ontario, for instance, researcher Tamara Banbury is heading “a movement of innovators and thrill–seekers trying to hack the human body with technology”. Banbury herself participates in the trials, since she possesses “two microchips embedded in her hands [that] can store passwords, identification, even electronic train tickets” which her colleagues are now trying to hack.
Although the studies on the weaponization of the Internet of Bodies are still in the preliminary stage, some conclusions can already be drawn in the light of the result achieved: potentially–lethal hackings of pacemakers, self–driving cars and hospital machineries are no sci fi because “a device [needs] to transmit information over the internet, on its own or through another device like a cell phone” and some researchers have already shown that “they can hack into an insulin pump, for example, raising the possibility that they could make it deliver a fatal dose”.
In short, technological progress promises, in a not–so–distant future, to pave the way for perfect killings; killings performed remotely, from home, nay behind a screen. Everyone may be targeted, and killed, by the cyberkillers: a politician whose old heart is supported by a pacemaker, an investigative journalist who bought a self–driving car, an oligarch who furnished his five–star manor with smart devices, or a diabetic head of State who trusts too much his life–saving insulin pump.