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Dual-Used Neurotechnologies: Insights from the United States and China

By Joy Putney

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
In an episode of Black Mirror on Netflix, futuristic soldiers are not only armed with conventional weapons but also carry neural implants that, in addition to projecting mission information to a virtual display on their eyes and allowing for communication with other squad members, alter their senses to enable them to be more effective killers. The Neuroethics Blog has previously published an in-depth summary and analysis of “Men Against Fire”, which presents a frightening vision of a world where dual-use neurotechnology facilitates genocide. Fictional stories often overrepresent risks of new technologies, but there is also danger in underappreciating the potential applications of neuroscience research for military purposes. In fact, around 25 to 30% of cognitive neuroscientists surveyed in a 2015 study saw no potential dual-use or security risks in any neuroscience research, with a majority responding that they saw no dual-use applications of their own research. Yet, throughout the past decade, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) has invested hundreds of millions of dollars into neuroscience research through the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Air Force (USAF), the US Army (USA), and other agencies. Top military leadership in China have also prioritized neuroscience research, specifically to develop brain-computer interfaces and “hybrid intelligence.” Understanding military applications of neuroscience sought by both the U.S. and China is necessary for careful consideration of the ethical, legal, and social implications of dual-use neurotechnologies. 

What does dual-use mean? 

There are many definitions of dual-use, so it is important to clarify which meaning is being adopted for the rest of the discussion. Dual-use can refer to technologies that have both civilian and military applications. However, another popular definition of dual-use refers to technologies that can be used for both beneficial and malicious purposes. Yet another definition can refer to technologies that have both legitimate and illegitimate usages. In some cases, these definitions overlap; for example, some chemicals that can be used for beneficial, legitimate purposes, are controlled by the Chemical Weapons Convention since they can also be used for malicious, illegitimate purposes in chemical weapons.  

Many dual-use technologies that fall under one or more of these definitions are subject to export controls. Recently, brain-computer interfaces (BCIs)—neurotechnologies that enable communication between a brain and an external device—were listed by the U.S. Congressional Research Service as an emerging technology that may become subject to export controls. Neurotechnologies could be categorized by any of these definitions, but here the first definition of technologies that have both civilian and military applications will be used. 

Neurotechnology interest and investment by the U.S. DoD 

Image courtesy of 
RAEng Publications on Pixabay
In 1965, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) investigated using electrical stimulation to remote-control the movement of dogs for military and intelligence purposes. While this research never made its way to the field, there has been interest in neurotechnologies by the defense and intelligence communities for over 50 years, long before the technological advances that have now enabled neurotechnologies that allow a person with quadriplegia to type out sentences on a keyboard or an amputee to feel sensations from a prosthetic hand

Many of these beneficial medical applications of neurotechnology have been made possible by extensive U.S. defense funding of neuroscience research. DARPA has several ongoing programs developing neurotechnologies. The prosthetic hand mentioned above (the LUKE Arm, after Luke Skywalker of the Star Wars saga) was funded through the Revolutionizing Prosthetics program at the agency and is a commercially available technology, though the haptic (sensation restoring) capabilities of the arm have yet to obtain FDA approval for commercial use. Other programs include 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 neurotechnologies to restore vision and hearing to injured service members. The U.S. Air Force has also funded the development of neurotechnologies to accelerate learning and the U.S. Army maintains a Mission-Impact through Neuro-Inspired Design (MIND) laboratory. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but demonstrates heavy investment into R&D for neurotechnologies throughout the U.S. DoD. 

While these technologies are still nascent, several agencies within the DoD have released white papers that discuss future military applications for these neurotechnologies when they are fully developed. A white paper by USAF Major Mark Vahle opens with a scenario of a fighter pilot in 2040 who has a fiber-optic neural implant that allows him to process multiple streams of data, increase situational awareness, and command his plane through an AI that decodes his intent from his brain activity. A comprehensive study from USA’s Combat Capabilities Development Command (DEVCOM) entitled Cyborg Soldier 2050 highlights four neurotechnology applications that the authors believed will enhance battlefield operations in the next thirty years. They included visual and auditory augmentation to improve situational awareness, programmed muscular control through wearable exoskeletons to reduce combat injury, direct control of weapons systems through BCIs, and brain-to-brain communication between service members. While most current applications of defense spending in neuroscience are medical in nature, the same neurotechnologies that can restore vision, hearing, and movement have potential to augment these same abilities in healthy service members. 

Neurotechnology interest and investment by China’s PLA 

Image courtesy of Peretz Partensky on Flickr
The U.S. DoD is not alone in its interest in neurotechnologies for military applications. Top leadership in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China have also expressed the importance of brain science for their national defense strategy. The Director of the Central Military Commission Science and Technology Commission in China (CMC S&TC), Lt. Gen. Liu Guozhi, has said, “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”. The CMC S&TC has ongoing military brain science projects, and the PLA’s National University of Defense Technology (NUDT) has researched brain-computer interface technologies for over twenty years. 

Since China has adopted a national strategy of military-civil fusion, this neurotechnology emphasis is also evident on the civilian side through the China Brain Project. The China Brain Project launched in 2016 along with the country’s Thirteenth Five-Year Plan that highlighted innovation in brain and brain-inspired research. Its goals are envisioned as “one body two wings”, with a core body of understanding the brain and an equal emphasis on the applications—the two wings—of treating brain disorders and developing brain-machine intelligence technologies. In strikingly similar language to the CMC S&TC Director quoted above, 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.” China’s approach to the development of neurotechnologies strongly demonstrates how dual-use applications are inherent to even basic neuroscience research. 

Public perceptions of dual-use neurotechnologies and implications 

The usage of neurotechnologies for human enhancement, whether in civilian or military contexts, is met with much wariness from the average U.S. citizen. A 2016 Pew Research survey on human enhancements resulted in 69% of U.S. respondents saying they are worried by the idea of neural implants and 66% claiming they would not want to use one to enhance their brain. Additionally, both the Cyborg Soldier 2050 study as well as a study on military applications of brain-computer interfaces by RAND Corporation cited distrust of service members as a major hurdle to military usage of neurotechnologies. The Cyborg Soldier study also indicated that media portrayals like “Men Against Fire” have a significant negative impact on public perception of neurotechnologies.  

Yet there is a disconnect between the public’s perception of neurotechnologies and that of neuroscientists, who in significant numbers do not recognize the dual-use potential of their own or their colleagues’ research. This could be because neurotechnologies have incredible potential to improve quality of life for people suffering from sensory, motor, or other clinical deficits, so it is undoubtedly beneficial that they are being researched and developed. Indeed, these medical advancements have been made possible in part by defense investment. Greater awareness of dual-use potential will enable fuller exploration of the ethical, legal, and social implications of neurotechnologies. Teams of neuroscientists, ethicists, and defense leaders can and should consider the ethical quandaries and legal pitfalls that accompany the use of neurotechnologies by healthy individuals whether in civilian or military contexts. Careful consideration of the potential risks of neurotechnologies while they are still nascent will ensure that the world of “Men Against Fire” remains a fictitious nightmare. 


Ms. Joy Putney is a 5th year Ph.D. candidate in Quantitative Biosciences at Georgia Institute of Technology and a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow. She previously graduated summa cum laude from Washington & Lee University with a B.S. in Biology and Physics-Engineering. Her dissertation research focuses on how information for movement is encoded in neural signals to muscles, and more specifically on the role of precise timing of action potentials in controlling muscle force and body movements. She was a 2020-2021 Sam Nunn Security Program Fellow through the School of International Affairs at Georgia Tech, where she developed expertise on national security and policy issues and investigated the adoption likelihood of neurotechnologies for civilian and military usage in the United States and China.

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Putney, J. (2021). Dual-Used Neurotechnologies: Insights from the United States and China. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from


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