The first cyborg mouse is American and can see in the dark. In 2019, a team from the University of Arizona announced that they had injected nanoparticles into the eyes of several rodents that “convert” infrared (invisible) light into visible green light.
Bound to the eye’s photoreceptor cells, these nanoparticles enabled the mice to see in the dark while maintaining their normal vision. Next step: the development of organic nanoparticles that are compatible with the physiology of the human eye.
This impressive innovation perfectly illustrates the type of research currently being carried out by laboratories serving the armed forces. Over the past few decades, they have developed devices that seem straight out of Hollywood blockbusters: vibrating bands for silent communication, vision systems through walls, exoskeletons, trellises for treating injuries, etc. But amidst these technological excesses, one weak point remains: the human, too fragile and too slow. The goal is therefore to stimulate the physical and cognitive abilities of the fighter.
Nothing really new here. This search began on a grand scale at the beginning of World War II. Germany administered Pervitin, or “Göring’s pill,” to its pilots and tankers. It strengthened their alertness and resistance and made them forget about hunger and sleep. As for the Americans and English, they handed out handfuls of small pills containing Benzedrine, a home-made amphetamine. Even today, American soldiers can get stimulating “go pills” for long field trips with a doctor’s confirmation. For its part, if the French army claims to give its pilots only caffeine pills, in 1991 they tested modafinil, an anti-sleep psychostimulant without the risk of addiction of amphetamines, on a thousand soldiers.
But these drugs only temporarily mask the inherent weaknesses of human physiology. From now on we want to teach the body to react differently. A US Army medical research institute invented an electric heating tape that you put on your forearm. The tests were clear: in a room cooled to 0°C, it gave wearers 50% more dexterity and 90% more strength in their fingers. This little technology warms the peripheral blood and inhibits the normal tendency of the blood vessels in the hands to constrict at low temperatures.
A “hack” very far from what is already at work in some foreign armies, notably in Russia or China, such as eye surgery to improve visual acuity. In her December 2020 speech on “Ethics and the Augmented Soldier” during the Digital Defense Innovation Forum, Minister of the Armed Forces Florence Parly was categorical: “The so-called invasive developments are not on the agenda of the French armies. But we have to be clear… it’s a future we need to prepare for. The nanoparticles tested on mice would respect the ethical limit set by the minister: the process is reversible since they are eliminated spontaneously after about ten weeks. However, this French position is marginal on the world stage, and the Chinese and Russians do not have these concerns. According to American intelligence, they would develop gene therapies that would increase or inhibit the production of certain hormones to create more combative, stronger soldiers resistant to cold, pain, stress and hunger. In an October 2017 speech, President Vladimir Putin announced the arrival of a “genetically modified” soldier who “will be able to fight without fear, without pity, without regret or pain”.
Six technologies in the boxes
On August 28, 2020, Elon Musk, the billionaire founder of SpaceX and Tesla Motors, unveiled a chip developed by his startup Neuralink. It is to be implanted in the brain and is initially intended to treat neurological diseases. But Elon Musk plans to use it to connect to a computer via Bluetooth or control machines. The chip could help develop direct brain-to-brain communication.
A screen in a contact lens
Californian start-up Mojo Vision has developed an augmented reality contact lens. The 70,000-pixel mini-screen is translucent, allowing the wearer to see various information in their normal field of vision. The soldier could thus see his enemies appearing in a different color.
A network of chips implanted throughout the body could directly stimulate nerves via light pulses. The muscles would be automatically controlled by an artificial intelligence that would improve the soldiers’ performance and avoid dangers, such as enemy fire.
University of Illinois researchers have developed an electronic skin that deforms with the elasticity of the skin. This plaster consists of a plastic layer just a few micrometers thick, is water-soluble and is applied to the skin like a decal. Equipped with sensors, it monitors the wearer’s physiological constants; Electrocardiogram, electroencephalogram, temperature, etc. which it transmits to the central office. This electronic skin will have antennas, even mini solar cells, that can be integrated into the patch.
There has long been talk of nanorobots that could be inserted into the human body to heal it from within; they finally exist. Developed in 2020, they are about 40 × 50 microns in size, 5 microns thick (a hair is 75 microns in diameter), and are equipped with four legs and actuators. They can be controlled and used as microsurgical instruments, for example to heal a wound.
Gene therapy would alter a soldier’s DNA to optimize his mind in battle. In this way, his brain could stimulate the production of endorphins to relieve pain. An excess of adrenaline would prime the body for battle. Conversely, the brain could also throttle the production of oxytocin, the hormone of empathy, to increase its aggressiveness.
> At the limits of the humanat the Musée de l’Homme in Paris until May 30, 2022. An evocation of the transformations our bodies could undergo.