Illustration via iStockphoto/daver2002ua
In February, London’s Royal Society released a report titled “Neuroscience, Conflict, and Security” that highlights how all those chemicals sloshing around in your brain can be manipulated for diabolical ends. The report was a particular point of interest in July among a group of scientists and security experts who convened in Geneva to discuss biological warfare, including the latest terrifying developments in neurological death-dealing.
Shortly after the meeting, I met with Professor Malcolm Dando from the University of Bradford, a biologist turned international security guru and one of the minds behind the Royal Society’s report. He said one of the main issues regarding chemical weapons is that it is permissible for law enforcement agencies to use them for “allowable peaceful purposes,” such as riot control. “Standard agents that affect peripheral sense organs are something that police forces think they need,” he said. “That’s fine, but what I don’t agree with is chemicals acting upon the central nervous system—they might have very dangerous effects.”
Take fentanyl, for instance, an opiate that acts on the central nervous system and causes unconsciousness. It’s supposedly ideal for riot control, but back in 2002, when Russian cops used it to end a hostage situation in a Moscow theater, fentanyl was responsible for the deaths of 117 civilians. “Thinking that you can safely use chemicals in those kinds of circumstances is nonsense at the present time,” Dando said. “You just can’t predict where the concentrations of the gas will be in a space and you can’t predict what the impact will be on any particular person.”
Dando imagined a number of other ways in which well-intentioned neuroscience research can be misused, including developing artificially intelligent remote-control drones. “At the moment we have people sitting thousands of miles away from Afghanistan guiding the operations of drones,” he said. “As it gets more and more difficult for people to understand the data that’s coming back from them, and to operate them, there would be a move to make them more autonomous.” Skynet, anyone?
I asked him if there’s any hope of avoiding a future in which sentient drones and mind-control viruses roam the air. “We are not slaves to our technology,” he replied. “What happens in the application of our technology depends on what we decide we want to happen, which is contingent on social processes. If we want to avoid these kinds of nasty, hostile applications of our science and technology, then it is up to us to stop it.”
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