13
$\begingroup$

Assuming another ~80-100 years of scientific progress from our current standpoint, I believe that 'augmented humans' will be more or less a widespread phenomenon. This would take shape as any number of mixtures of technology, genetic optimization, etc.

What I really want to know is, given ~100 years, could we go further: could we engineer a human or human-like creature to be stronger, more resilient, faster, etc? Basically, to what extent could we plausibly genetically engineer the perfect killing machine?

I'm assuming that these modifications would need to be done early - to an embryo or to a young child - in order for them to manifest in any dramatic way. Is assuming things like increased strength, regenerative tissue, increased bone density and musculature, going too far?

To clarify as requested: this is -not- an ethics question - just one of feasibility: I want to avoid going into 'it's-not-magic-because-science' territory.

Further, I'm asking about relatively extreme modifications: someone who could shrug off being shot in the chest. Almost literally a monster.

$\endgroup$
  • $\begingroup$ Could you clarify your question? Are you asking what potential future technologies could make a super soldier or if a nation would even WANT make a super soldier, assuming they knew how? $\endgroup$ – Jason K Sep 22 '16 at 19:49
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ This gives me shades of "Ghost in the Shell." You should probably define that tech/inventions progress as they have for the past 70 for the next for the next 100 years. There HAVE been periods in history that were pretty stagnant tech development wise for a 100 years, and it can happen again. Also; does the "perfect killing machine" actually necessitate "human"? A robot in 100 years might do better then any biologically based killer. $\endgroup$ – Marky Sep 22 '16 at 20:57
  • 7
    $\begingroup$ Wouldn't the perfect killing machine just be a machine? Why go through all of the hassle of raising a super solider when you could just buy something off of the shelf. $\endgroup$ – Robert Ben Parkinson Sep 22 '16 at 21:34
  • $\begingroup$ @RobertBenParkinson Perhaps lots of nanobots that disable machines and kill humans. And if enemy has nanobots too, you can wage nanowars. :) $\endgroup$ – user31389 Sep 23 '16 at 12:46
  • $\begingroup$ Les Enfants Terribles $\endgroup$ – Devsman Sep 23 '16 at 12:58
14
$\begingroup$

The answer is easily yes. Two things are necessary for genetic engineering to be possible:

  1. You have to know what to change in the genome to get the desired outcome.
  2. You have to be able to change the genome in the desired way.

We have already developed technology theoretically capable of editing the genome of a human embryo in any way desired. Labs across the world routinely produce transgenic mice and if they really wanted to could modify human embryos as well. With 80-100 years of progress the technology will likely become simple and cheap, driven by its usefulness in the fields of biology and medicine. The ability to use it on an adult human would require a major breakthrough of some sort, but using it to modify an embryo will likely be trivial.

So the question becomes, what can we change to make our soldiers better? As an example let’s take strength, how can we make soldiers stronger? Humans evolved to be only as strong as they needed to be. That’s why when we exercise our muscles becomes stronger, and when we don’t they atrophy. It’s about efficiency. Having big muscles is nice when you get attacked by a leopard, but when it comes winter and there isn’t enough food all that muscle mass is going to kill you. Well, it turns out we know how to turn off the pathway that causes muscles to atrophy. In fact, some humans already have mutations that turned this gene off and don’t appear to have any other negative side effects. The gene is called myostatin and mutants have also been observed in sheep and dogs and been created in monkeys and mice. Its deletion roughly doubles the musculature and strength of most animals. Scientists have even gone beyond myostatin and created mice that lack myostatin and overproduce follistatin that leads to 4 times the normal muscle mass.

What that means is that right now, in a government lab somewhere, someone could be raising a batch of super strong children. There are really no technological barriers to this, only monetary, political, and ethical. By removing the calorie-saving efficiency mechanisms evolution has given us we can better adapt soldiers to an environment where food is no longer scarce.

Now, increased strength, at least to 4-fold human norms is certainly plausible, but what about your other traits? Things like regeneration or increased bone density might work out, or they might not. We got lucky with strength because evolution has somewhat intentionally crippled human muscle growth to prevent us from starving and because we happened to have an existing mutation that pointed us right to it, but right now we don’t know any way to make the body heal faster or to make bones harder to break or to make someone able to shrug off a bullet (although we could make them impervious to pain). With 80-100 years of additional research it’s certainly possible we discover enough about how the body performs those tasks that we can improve on them. But it’s also possible the human body might already be well-optimized for those functions and we aren’t able to improve without making sacrifices elsewhere.

$\endgroup$
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ The basic calorie tradeoff for muscle mass is involved in all other functions too, I think. For instance, if memory serves, scarring is basically "We can't afford to regrow this limb". $\endgroup$ – Puppy Sep 22 '16 at 23:36
  • $\begingroup$ Please also notice that the lack of myostatin does produce negative side effects. I cannot link to a reasearch, but my brother studies this and told me that those genes are all there for a reason. $\endgroup$ – Noldor130884 Sep 23 '16 at 5:56
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ There have to be negative side effects of a large increase in muscle mass. Look at all the bodybuilders and wrestlers who die young due to cardiac issues because they have to oxygenate all that muscle. Now perhaps it is the TRAINING regimen that does most of the damage, and a myostatin hack will alleviate some of that stress, but without a host of other mods I don't think you can just double human muscle mass without some consequences. $\endgroup$ – Jason K Sep 23 '16 at 13:05
  • $\begingroup$ "Now, increased strength, at least to 4-fold human norms is certainly plausible" It's worth noting that just increasing muscle mass does not necessarily lead to better performance. Between various scaling laws (bigger you get, the more muscle is spent support itself, and the harder it is to cool yourself down) and the fact that strong human's today already have muscles today capable to break their own bones. $\endgroup$ – NPSF3000 Sep 23 '16 at 13:05
12
$\begingroup$

Unlikely in a country like the US where the "citizen soldier" model is prevalent and veterans affairs are a constant sore issue.

We actively PREVENT soldiers from using performance enhancing drugs in most cases (we actively test for anabolic steroids, unprescribed amphetamine use, etc). Plus there is a distinct lack of adoption of proper nutrition, exercise, and recovery techniques. For example, bases do not have saunas, cryotherapy chambers, or dining facilities with well stocked "healthy" food options. Barring some very elite units who might have a dietician assigned to them or some off-label drug use (amphetamines to maintain alertness during a long flight, for example) the run of the mill soldier, while evaluated for fitness at regular intervals, gets precious little support in actually enhancing performance. Professional sports teams are FAR FAR ahead of the military in this.

So even if there was some sort of genetic physical enhancement program, I suspect you will see it pop up in athletics before the military, at least outside of very controlled societies like North Korea. Of course the development and research of PEDs is severely hampered by the persistent banning of any substance that might give an athlete an edge, so the concept of "fair play" will have to change dramatically in order for proper study into PEDs and enhancement programs in the first place.

What would a free country do with broken or retired super soldiers? We also have a strong respect for free will and choice, could one of these child soldiers opt out of the program? What happens with their genetic enhancements? What are the long term health effects and who pays for the care? I think it would be hard for any type of enhanced human program to justify the cost compared to a drone program, aircraft carriers, guided missiles, etc. Dumping millions into children in the hope that they will be physically, mentally, and emotionally suited for the military is a relative long shot compared to hardware weapons programs.

Plus no government is going to want these guys walking around out of control. Governments already have an uneasy relationship with their veterans, this would be much more unstable if the vets were super-human. Far easier to give a normal person a super-suit that is owned and controlled by the government, so that is where I think we will see more innovation.

EDIT: You have clarified your question a bit. In the broader context of "will genetics make humans better" then yes, I do believe that we will have "super-soldiers" at least from our current POV in the next century. But these will be mods applied ACROSS the citizenry, not concentrated just within the military. The types of hacks useful for military performance are also often hacks helpful for everyone else. Take an ability to go without sleep, enhanced low light vision, or improved hot/cold weather tolerance. These have commercial applications so could be expected to be available to all the citizenry, not just some cloistered "army baby factory".

The problem with creating, from birth, a super soldier is that the development time is just too long and the REPLACEMENT time is crippling. Unless a country can sustain a large standing army of genetic super soldiers (who are apart from the normal population) then it is likely that in a large conflict all of your elite forces will be wiped out early on and will become irreplaceable as there is an 18 year grow time so you are stuck with whoever is already in the pipeline.

This is why technological solutions, like an improved armored vest instead of a grown protective carapace, are preferred. You can ramp up vest production quickly and train normal folks in their use far faster than you can grow bullet-proof soldiers. Plus the vest can get modded with the latest enhancements while the genetic soldiers will always be, literally, a generation behind the current tech. Why give humans the ability to see in the dark instead of developing a better night vision system?

The genetic hacks like a simple, easily understood MHC system (the immune markers that govern self/not-self) to allow for rapid organ transplant from a common inventory would be useful for EVERYONE, not just soldiers. Same with any genetic enhancements what would allow for resistance to disease, radiation, allow for limb regrowth, etc.

An area you WOULD see some military specific interest would be in genetic modifications of ADULTS. We can already do this using viruses to insert gene sequences into cystic fibrosis patients. So a new soldier, once they finish basic training, could get an "upgrade package" of gene therapy that could enhance all sorts of things, like resistance to battlefield biologic/chemical/nuclear agents, possibly ways to reduce traumatic brain injury, methods to alter the immune system to allow for compatibility to a universal blood transfusion or organ transplant system, etc. Boosting SURVIVABILITY to combat is a fairly unique military requirement that may not be necessary for non-combatants, has little disadvantage for veterans (from the perspective of the government that has to deal with them), and would allow for increased combat effectiveness for soldiers independent of their equipment.

Barring a method of being able to brainwash or mind control youth to become perfect soldiers, modifying adults who have already CHOSEN to be soldiers is much more cost effective than raising soldiers from birth with the high likelihood that the majority won't be good soldiers yet can't integrate into the regular society. Even if all you want is a small cadre of elite special forces soldiers, you would need to raise a large contingent of possible subjects, most of whom would lack the mental stability, emotional toughness, and will to be a good special forces soldier, regardless of how physically gifted they are and the specificity of their upbringing. Far cheaper and easier to pull from the regular population and then enhance via gene therapy after successful training.

$\endgroup$
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ While I think this is a useful perspective it doesn't really answer the question. The question was not should we or would we create super soldiers. It is can we create them. $\endgroup$ – Mike Nichols Sep 22 '16 at 19:39
  • 6
    $\begingroup$ @MikeNichols. My point is that we COULD make them NOW (at least boost soldiers to the current human maximum) but we CHOOSE NOT TO due to a variety of moral, economic, and social reasons. Since those reasons are unlikely to change in just 100 years I think it does answer the question. $\endgroup$ – Jason K Sep 22 '16 at 19:46
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @Jason K I think I have a much more dim view of how we treat soldiers than you do. I'd say we only 'ostensibly' prevent soldiers from using performance enhancing drugs. Amphetamine use among AF pilots was a widespread problem among many nations in the past. As things got desperate, performance enhancing drugs were used among some German soldiers in WWII. You're right that a broken/out of control soldier is undesirable but I don't think the gov't would care. I think one shady/unethical enough to create something like a super soldier in the first place isn't above just 'throwing them away' $\endgroup$ – Distilled Sep 22 '16 at 20:20
  • $\begingroup$ Ahem... You don't do all of that with the cannon fodder because it is expensive and side effects can be nasty if not controlled tightly (for instance there are reports of pilots becoming addicted to the metamphetamine, despite all the medicals controls). Not because of some citizen-soldier tale (unless your citizens are taught to drive tanks and fly jets at the school...). $\endgroup$ – SJuan76 Sep 23 '16 at 0:06
9
$\begingroup$

Yes but it is unclear if it would have a major effect.

It seems fairly reasonable that in 100 years we could use genetic engineering to give the average soldier the same genetic advantages Olympic athletes have.

So with extensive training you could have troops that all sprint as fast as Usain Bolt, swim as fast as Michel Phelps, and bench press like (some Olympic weight lifter) and could place in most every Olympic sport.

Would this matter in combat? Not really, it much cheaper and effective to give troops equipment then to modify them.

A guy in a jeep can out run Usain Bolt, a motor boat will out run Phelps and a hydraulic arms will beat any weight lifter. A man with a Kevlar vest can survive more damage then the toughest un-armored man, and instead of a multi billion dollar genetic engineering problem, each of these solutions is just a few thousand dollars and can be ramped up in a few weeks.

$\endgroup$
4
$\begingroup$

Basically, to what extent could we plausibly genetically engineer the perfect killing machine?

It's pretty much not going to happen. Modifications to humans are expensive, they take decades to pay off, and most problematically, they're uncontrollable - you can't turn them on and off as you please, you can have unknown side effects, problems with their descendants inheriting, etc. Finally, there's all the ethical considerations and your people won't be happy if you conscript children.

Compare this to just rolling a few Terminators off the assembly line. No fuss, no muss- easily controlled, completely disposable, mass producible in a much shorter timescale, easily upgradable, in-built wireless communication, much more effective.

The only reason that humans of any kind fight wars is because we can't build robots to fight them for us. In all cases where we can (e.g. drones) we do. In the future, this won't be a case of upgrading humans- it'll be a case of upgrading robots. You would have to hit mechanical warriors pretty hard with a nerf bat to make even genetically engineered humans remotely competitive.

$\endgroup$
  • $\begingroup$ I agree, by the time we could make them they would be obsolete. $\endgroup$ – Tim B Sep 23 '16 at 10:04
4
$\begingroup$

What makes solders dangerous? Training and the ability to rapidly process information and act on it. There are many people who are perhaps physically more dangerous, stronger, faster having martial arts training and so on than military personnel, but would not be good soldiers in the field.

So if there is a need for enhancement, then improving the cognitive abilities, mental acuity, imagination and creativity may pay far more dividends than physical strength or reflexes. Soldiers and military personnel who are cognitively enhanced will be able to work the OODA (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) loop far faster than their opponents, recognize strange or unusual situations and come up with creative solutions to problems, making them unpredictable to most opponents but still working in a disciplined and controlled way to impose their will on the enemy.

As an added bonus, if these improvements are spread through the general population, then you have an economy, social system and political system which is powered by faster, "smarter" and more creative minds. A nation with that sort of home field advantage might well be much harder to deal with in the economic, political or military spheres.

$\endgroup$
2
$\begingroup$

Ignoring the ethics of it, raising enhanced children as soldiers isn't practical.

First off you'd need a 18 year lead time for available soldiers. Good luck knowing what your military needs are almost two decades in the future.

It's also a massive up front investment. Raising normal children is expensive. Enhancements and training won't be cheap either.

What you get for all this time and money is someone a little stronger and slightly faster who will die just as fast as everybody else.

$\endgroup$
  • $\begingroup$ I'd argue you can take any slice of twenty years over the past 116 years and the military generation at the start would have a decent idea of how to improve a solider (in general terms) that would be useful at the end of that period. Shoot, reading Infantry Attacks, I feel confident that Erwin Rommel could suggest some genetic advantages that--if magically/scientifically bestowed to soldiers--would still be readily helpful to this very day. $\endgroup$ – Ranger Sep 22 '16 at 22:09
  • $\begingroup$ While you don't know exactly what you'll need 18 years down the road, you will know the basics: stronger, faster, better senses, more resilient. $\endgroup$ – EvilSnack Sep 24 '16 at 23:03
  • $\begingroup$ @EvilSnack I was talking about quantity. $\endgroup$ – sphennings Sep 25 '16 at 13:19
2
$\begingroup$

Think Planet of The Apes and you get an idea of super soldiers.

I don't think it will happen though!

If they can create such soldiers it would also mean such technology already exists on consumer channels. Otherwise you wouldn't have a health organization, genetic research facilities or yes even the dreaded black market. Then there would also be the worry what if some other nation does it first.

Why it won't happen?

Artificial intelligence still beats augments, I think we are slowly weaning towards this direction of modern warfare. The reason is simple $$ it's cheaper to design smart machines that can out think us. Skynet much?

$\endgroup$
1
$\begingroup$

No, because what you're asking... isn't the same as what you're asking.

Can you add physical adaptions and enhancements to make a person dangerous? yeah, probably - it doesn't sound implausible to engineer those kinds of traits in the future. It may be possible to borrow dangerous traits from other species, to figure out how they work (and upsides and downsides) to make the traits well chosen to work together. Such a person will be dangerous indeed.

Can you make this person a "killing machine"? Maybe. Certainly not a "perfect" one, a lot of interesting traits are tradeoffs - but actually you have a difference between being dangerous, and being a killer. Once you're dealing with the person, not just the body, you're dealing with psychology, with personality, and choice, and different mindsets, and so on - it's a lot, a lot trickier to try and predict traits, much less pre-select them dependently. Maybe you can select for aggressiveness, or try to guarantee sociopathy in all the subjects - and training and environment will also play a heavy role - but guarantee that every subject, or even most, will be a killing machine is not plausible. You can't guarantee that they will kill or destroy without remorse or trauma, that they won't want (and perhaps work for or rebel to get) a different life than they were intended for.

Can you make this subject a "super-soldier"? Yeah, no - not the least because the traits you need for a soldier are the opposite of what you'd need for a killing machine. Your soldier must be obedient, must be loyal, must be willing to work towards your goal. Traits that would let them kill easily and without trauma would make them a danger to their own side, traits that would let them identify with their handlers and their "side" enough to be loyal would let them identify with their side's enemies (because, they are also people). Things that would prevent them from being a danger to their own side, will prevent them from being a danger to their enemies, they can be stopped or controlled by the same methods.

And really, the things that make a soldier so useful, so dangerous they haven't replaced by machinery even in this advanced future? is the ability to think, to plan, to react tactically, to improvise. Good luck controlling people with that skillset, especially since they will be treated as tools for a purpose, not as people, and people generally do not react well to that kind of treatment. Raising them and training them will help somewhat with control, for a while, maybe trying to give them a reason to be loyal... but if children could be reliably shaped by into what their parents intended them to be, the world would look very differently (especially since your enhancement program gives you very little wiggleroom for people to not fall in line). They might just make a pact with the enemy's soldier-subjects and turn on both sides' worth of handlers.

$\endgroup$
1
$\begingroup$

Theoretically sure, but not in the way you want. What you suggest would cause a fiasco, there would be millions of people protesting raising babies for war, but there are other ways to make a supersoldier.

What I suggest is a combination of the Call of Duty method and the Halo method, have a course of constant steroids, caffeine, adrenaline increases, etc; to increase production of positive military traits. This tied with an exo skeleton suit will result in a soldier that is

  • Stronger
  • Smarter
  • With More Endurance
  • Who is less susceptible to pain
  • Needs to sleep less
$\endgroup$
  • $\begingroup$ Isn't the Halo method pretty much exactly "steal kid/modify genetic structure"? I do intend to incorporate steroid and other chemical/hormone augmentations as well. Good call, thanks! $\endgroup$ – Distilled Sep 22 '16 at 20:15
  • $\begingroup$ @Distilled Halo also has suits of huge armor $\endgroup$ – TrEs-2b Sep 22 '16 at 20:20
  • $\begingroup$ Yeah. I meant that there wasn't a 'fiasco' in spite of the fact that they did exactly what you described would result in a fiasco. We let governments get away with some pretty shady stuff already. A program like this would have to be pretty secretive to begin with, and the general populace would probably only know about it if such a specimen were captured by an enemy force or defected. $\endgroup$ – Distilled Sep 22 '16 at 20:23
  • $\begingroup$ @Distilled yeah, if they did it that way, they wouldn't tell anyone the truth obviously $\endgroup$ – TrEs-2b Sep 22 '16 at 20:25

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.