P.W. Singer on War as Entertainment

Question: Is force used more liberally when humans are removed from the battlefield?

Singer:    I went around the world and interviewed all sorts of people working on the robotics trend.  Everything from robot scientists to the science fiction authors who inspire them, to Four Star Generals, to the 19-year-old drone pilots in Nevada, to the Iraqi insurgents that they were targeting, to Red Cross lawyers, you name it, across the board.  And one of the things that was fascinating is that there was one shared concern among all of them and it was that as you move humans out of danger, it also potentially made them more willing to use force.  I thought… an interesting interview was one with the former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Ronald Reagan and he said, “Look, I’m a big supporter of these systems because they save American lives.  There are hundreds of American soldiers who are alive today because of sending out robotics to handle dangerous missions.”  But then he said, “I’m worried though because I’m worried we’re going to have more marketization of war, more [shock and all talk] to sort of defray discussion of the cost.”  And that takes it in an interesting direction because there are already several trends in place right now that I think this may take us to the logical ending point for.  That is, we don’t have a draft, we don’t have declarations of war anymore for some reason, we don’t have war bonds or war taxes, and now you have the trend that more and more of the Americans that might be put in the harm’s way are American machines.  And so you might take those already lowering bars to war and drop them right to the ground.  And so the public isn’t as involved in the way as it should.  There’s another part of this that’s kind of disturbing to me as well.  It doesn’t just de-link the public, it reshapes their relationship with war.  So these machines, you don’t have humans in them so there isn’t the risk there, but they also still record everything that they see.  And so in some ways that can be good because now the public can have an eye into the battlefield in a way it never could before.  That the home front knows what’s going on in the warfront.  But the thing that’s happening is it’s just like these video downloads here.  People use them for education and news, but also people use them for entertainment.  There are several thousand of these video clips of robotics at war up on things like YouTube, and so I call this the rise of YouTube war.  Basically, people are taking the clips and tying them into a form of entertainment.  And the soldiers have a different term for it.  They call it war porn.  And what it is, is they’ll take a clip of some combat footage and it gets e-mailed around just like a video clip of some nerdy kid dancing in his, you know, basement.  One of the ones that was sent to me was footage of a predator drone taking out an enemy site and the bodies blowing into the air, and it was set to music.  It was set to Sugar Ray’s poppy hit “I just want to fly.”  And so, a way to think about this for me is almost like a sports parallel.  You have… When you’re watching an NBA game on TV, a basketball game on TV, you see the players but they’re really tiny, and it’s the difference between watching someone on TV versus sitting in the arena yourself and realizing, whoa, someone who’s 7 feet tall really is 7 feet tall and the whole experience of being at the game is a lot different.  Well, take that and layer on top of it that this is kind of like the ESPN Sports Center version of war.  That is you’re just getting clips out of it, so all of the tactics and techniques and training is all turned into just, you know, slamdunks and smart bombs.

P.W. Singer explores the problem of war as entertainment.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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