A more invasive use of nanotechnology for HPM is in the development of neural implants. These devices are placed directly into the brain to detect electric signaling (Navarro et al., 2005). To increase the signal-to-noise ratio and the resolution, the probes have to be on the same scale as the neurons that they monitor, that is, with a size of a few micrometers. Furthermore, they must be made of materials that are biocompatible and that produce as little damage and scarring in the surrounding tissue as possible. Sophisticated nanomaterials are being developed to achieve these characteristics (Zhang and Webster, 2009).
The committee’s literature search suggested that non-U.S. entities are more active in such research on cognitive function, with international players including Israel, Germany, Japan, and the Netherlands. Taiwan and South Korea have research infrastructure and expertise in this area as well, and China has also shown interest. Despite a great deal of progress, however, how the human brain functions is still largely unknown, and it seems unlikely that human performance can be significantly enhanced via BCIs in the near term.
It is clear that human performance modification—both for enhancement and degradation of capabilities—is a subject of active research in all the technologically developed countries and regions of the world. The span of research is enormous, ranging from sports-related research to worker-enhancement research, to military applications. And the potential for crossover applications in each category is high. For example, research in injury recovery and physical performance enhancement, now mostly in the sports-research sector, clearly has applicability to military force development and maintenance.
The committee noted that the sheer breadth of the scope of inquiry is staggering, from nanotechnology to genetic engineering to manipulating normal human processes (such as healing or fatigue). Predicting where each will go is difficult; predicting or even imagining the interactions, cross-applications, and unintended consequences borders on the impossible. One need only look at today’s human performance modifications that were not even dreamed about 20 years ago: wireless pacemakers that are monitored over the Internet, massively multiplayer online games that are used for tactics and training, and global groupware that enables geographically distributed teamwork. These examples show how one development—the commodification of the Internet backbone—enabled huge changes.
Although some technologies are exotic and require specialized infrastructure and knowledge, such as nanotechnology and genetic engineering, others (perhaps most) do not require such infrastructure and can be pursued with fairly minimal investments. This situation makes it problematic to monitor the state of HPM technology development. The complexity of the field requires monitoring of the entire technology ecosystem (see Appendix D) associated with any element of an application.
Finally, because of its very nature, HPM technology development will be influenced by differing legal norms, cultural values, and social mores in different parts of the world. It is a form of bias to assume that the methods and approaches used in one’s own geographic area are the same as those used in other areas. And even within a given country, there may be differences with regard to social mores, philosophies, and legal constraints. Two examples that illustrate the point are agriculture research involving genetically modified organisms and stem-cell research. In some parts of the world the former is fully acceptable and the latter less so, and vice versa in other parts. Any analysis of potential developments in HPM must be attuned to these cultural influences.