Neurowarfare and the law

Cornell Law School student Stephen E. White wrote a paper in the Cornell International Law Journal about the legalities of neurowarfare. White told me he's interested in "examining the legality of some of the weapon systems that DARPA is developing and how the use of brain-machine interfaces may challenge many of the core principles of domestic and international criminal law." From the paper:
For the past several years, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the military research and development agency tasked with maintaining U.S. military technological superiority, has engaged in research on direct neurological control of weapon systems.1 Although international law does not create a per se prohibition on the use of these weapons, the potential misuse of such weapons radically challenges tradi- tional notions of criminal responsibility by effacing the distinction between thought and act. This Note suggests that the development of such weap- ons requires a more expansive doctrine of command responsibility in order not to vitiate established legal principles regarding criminal accountability for war crimes.
Link (to PDF)


  1. criminal accountability for war crimes

    That is so 20th-century. In this post-9/11 world…

  2. “the potential misuse of such weapons radically challenges traditional notions of criminal responsibility by effacing the distinction between thought and act.”

    The last 7 years has been a challenge to traditional notions of criminal responsibility.

  3. @ Michael Brutsch:

    That is so 20th-century. In this post-9/11 world…

    That is so 20th century. In this 21st century world…

    On a serious note, weapons and war have always been the front-runners of technology. They advance our capabilities, create new economic conditions and new social orders (and consequently, new legal and moral complications).

    I’d be worried of living in a world where this did not happen.

  4. Hey! I got the “text is wrong” error! And here I thought it was a myth.

    What I was trying to say was something like this (and if this is imperfect, it is solely because the system erased my original, perfect reply.)

    Effacing the distinction between thought and act? I’m sorry, I’m as anti-Pentagon as anybody (ask anybody) but even I find this to be balderdash of the purest kind. I can’t believe such an interface would kill someone if I simply harbor violent thoughts — and if it is, then I still made the choice to enable the interface. Thus there is still a clear intent, and a clear act, of violence.

    This guy is just media whoring.

  5. I’ll admit to only reading the introduction, but I don’t see a significant difference between a person’s hands and a brain interface device.

    If I am a soldier on the ground, and I am shooting something, I issue some kind of neural command to my hands and they pull the trigger as soon as they can. If I’m a soldier in a bunker with a brain jack, I essentially do the same thing. Depending on the sophistication of the software, it might be something clunky like thinking, “Execute fire command alpha.” or it might be a simple interception of the same mental “pull trigger” command. Both systems have the obvious need to differentiate between thinking, “Bang!” and actually pulling the trigger. Failure to do that would be dangerous to everyone, friend and foe alike.

    Assuming that that technical issue is resolved, what is the problem? In both cases the soldier must issue a mental command that he or she knows will result in weapon fire. I don’t see any interesting distinction between act and thought there.

  6. Wait until those weapons get into the hands of private citizens. . . does the 2nd Amendment apply to these new weapons?

  7. The issue of vulnerability to ‘ware attack will only get more important as some of us run to have our brains augmented with the best upgrades. Charles Stross’s Glasshouse deals with this idea wonderfully.

  8. This seems to at least partially apply to an anime series I saw back in the 90s named Macross Plus. A transformable fighter prototype with a BCS (Brain Control System) was involved in an “accident” when the test pilot inside, after being rescued from an in-flight total failure of both propulsion and control systems, thought he was in a prime position to apply a downward force on his rescuer’s fighter.

    Without actually performing the action, his sole act of imagining it caused his fighter to react in kind; the rescuer’s fighter was a total loss and the pilot was lucky to survive with nothing much more than bruises.

    Test pilot Guld Goa Bowman issued a statement today that the BCS control failure was suspect in his fighter’s actions. The YF-21 is grounded until further testing of BCS is completed.

    It wasn’t me, it was the one armed vehicle!

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