In the past, much of military research has focused on building tools to make soldiers more effective on the battlefield: more powerful guns, better communications, stronger armor. But there is also research underway to improve the human body itself. The US military, academic researchers, and private companies are working together to maximize the capabilities of soldiers' bodies and brains.
Here are four of the most intriguing research projects:
1) Soldiers with superhuman focus
The Pentagon has been funding research to figure out how to stimulate the brain to improve cognitive performance. The military hopes to boost alertness when people do repetitive tasks like screening drone footage or other intelligence data.
There are several ways to stimulate the brain without implanting anything in the skull. The most commonly used in research is probably transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). A researcher places a pulsing electromagnet outside the participant's head to stimulate brain activity in a specific area.
TMS has been an active area of research recently, such as this experiment that used it to — at least temporarily — make people's memories stronger. Others have used it to do very simple forms of device-enabled telepathy.
Another way is to use electrodes to gently stimulate a patient's head with electrical current. In a more severe form, this is the concept behind electroshock therapy, made famous by One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. But today, researchers studying electrical stimulation for cognitive enhancement use much, much lower power levels. Participants often report that it feels like tickling.
The Pentagon has been funding research into both techniques. As Bryan Bender summed up for The Boston Globe, studies at the Air Force Research Laboratory have shown that brain stimulation improved alertness even better than caffeine or a placebo during long tests of repetitive tasks. Stimulation also roughly doubled participants' on wakefulness and vigor after 30 hours of sleep deprivation.
Other researchers, including Arizona State University researcher William Tyler, have been working instead on using ultrasound, which is relatively inexpensive and portable, has good spatial resolution, and can penetrate deep into the brain. However, its effects on specific behaviors hasn't been studied as much. Tyler has described the outlines of some of his Army-supported research, including a prototype that combined an ultrasound transducer with a protective helmet.
The main challenge is still to figure out where to stimulate the brain, how strong and in what frequency of pulses, and what the side effects are — especially over long-term use. For example, the FDA has approved transcranial-magnetic stimulation devices for certain types of depression and migraine, but that doesn't mean that they're safe for absolutely any use.
2) Soldiers with superhuman strength
Insects and crabs have powerful external skeletons. Could building exoskeletons for people make them stronger? The military is investigating whether the technology could be used to give soldiers superhuman strength. And other researchers are working on medical exoskeletons to enhance the strength of people who have been weakened from paralysis or old age.
The FDA approved ReWalk, the first exoskeleton for medical use, in June of 2014. The system consists of motorized leg braces that someone with lower-body paralysis can tell to walk, stand up, or sit down using a remote control.
And the military has been a big player in this field, too. Ekso Bionics previously developed the hydraulic powered HULC (Human Universal Load Carrier), which Lockheed Martin is now developing for military and industrial uses. Lockheed's website describes the HULC as something that could help military personnel carry up to 200 pounds of heavy combat gear for extended periods of time without fatigue. And Raytheon also has a similar suit: the XOS.
Several other programs having also been developing strength suits for military use, including US Special Operations Command's TALOS (Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit), which seeks "an advanced infantry uniform that promises to provide superhuman strength with greater ballistic protection," according to a US Army statement. And DARPA— the research arm of the Pentagon — has the Warrior Web program, which is focused on the goal of a soft, pliable supersuit.
3) Improving soldiers' memories
The military also wants to put chips in people's brains to help their memories. In the summer of 2014, the Department of Defense announced that it's planning to give out $40 million for researchers to make brain implants to help people with impaired memory. The idea is to help these people have a more normal ability to form new memories as well as access earlier ones. The project's name is Restoring Active Memory (RAM).
The Pentagon says it's interested in memory impairment because it's a frequent problem for service members with traumatic brain injuries. Of course, it's possible that the Pentagon has other interests in memory chips. Is DARPA hoping someday to make super soldiers with superhuman memory? Maybe. You never know. But the agency hasn't said anything publicly about that — they say that the research is aimed at people with memory problems.
It might not be as crazy as it sounds. Researchers have already created working brain implants, such as cochlear implants, which have allowed some 300,000 people to hear. The US government has also approved implants to treat Parkinson's disease and a movement disorder called dystonia.
The groups that are part of DARPA's RAM project — mostly at the University of Pennsylvania and UCLA — have already shown that implants are at least conceivable. For example, in 2012 the UCLA group published a paper in the New England Journal of Medicine showing that stimulating the brain's entorhinal cortex as people learned a spatial route let them remember it better.
The first phase of the research will involve people who already have some sort of electrical implants in their brains to treat things like epilepsy and Parkinson's. The researchers will record neuron activity during memory tasks to figure out what kinds of signals are involved in making and recalling memories. They will also collaborate with engineers to make devices that can stimulate the brain to boost memories.
Both the UPenn and UCLA teams claim that they plan to have actual implants that could be used on actual people within four years. However, as is often the case with science, they may or may not reach that goal.
4) Solders who are essentially Aquaman
The military is also looking at ways to make people more amphibious. Even with SCUBA gear, diving deep in water can kill people. One major problem is the bends, aka decompression sickness, which happens when someone comes back up too fast and the gases dissolved in their blood forms bubbles. Other serious problems can happen, too, including oxygen pressures that are too high or too low and something called gas narcosis, which DARPA describes as "euphoria and decrement in intellectual and psychomotor performance."
But DARPA wants a device that can overcome these problems. As profiled in 2013 by Robert Beckhusen at Wired's Danger Room blog, DARPA has put out a call for proposals to develop a sophisticated device that would closely monitor people's bodies and then change the mixture of the gases they're breathing to fight back against all of these symptoms.
The device would have to both monitor bubble formation (likely through ultrasound) and also the exact chemical composition of the gases that people are breathing in and out, which will require some significantly scaled-down instruments.
The scenario that DARPA wants people to be able to survive is pretty extreme: jumping from a plane at 35,000 feet, followed by several sea dives down and up hundreds of feet, and then leaving the scene in an unpressurized aircraft.
The document references previous research in which adding nitrogen-oxide gas seems to help relax blood vessels and limit decompression sickness. It also cites a previous DARPA program that found that nitrogen oxide fights against problems from low oxygen.
But this isn't the only thing that might work. Intriguingly, DARPA also mentions hydrogen sulfide, which some experiments have shown can produce a suspended-animation-like state that can help some mammals survive under extreme conditions.
This would be pretty impressive stuff if it can be demonstrated. Then again, given how much the military is working on various types of robots, maybe it would be easier to send down something that's not human at all.
Correction: The story previously stated that one of the hazards of deep-sea diving is gas necrosis. The sentence has been corrected to gas narcosis.