By Eva Fu
Launching assaults on the battlefield with a mere thought. Enhancing the human brain to create “super warriors.” Disrupting the minds of enemies to make them submit to the controller’s command.
Once believed to only exist in sci-fi movies, the weaponization of the brain has been discussed by Chinese military officials for years. And Beijing is spending billions each year on neuroscience that could draw these scenarios ever closer to reality.
“The study into brain science was born out of a vision for how the future warfare would evolve,” Li Peng, a medical researcher at a subsidiary of China’s state-run Academy of Military Medical Sciences (AMMS), wrote in an article in 2017. Such research, he added, has “an extremely strong military characteristic” and is crucial to securing a “strategic high ground” for every country.
Li was not alone in stressing the urgency in militarizing brain science.
In March, a Chinese military-run newspaper described cloud-powered artificial intelligence (AI) “integrating human and machine” as the key to winning wars. With the accelerating “intelligentization” of the military, it warned, China needs to quickly get a firm footing in this technology, and any delay “could lead to unimaginable consequences.”
According to research papers and articles in military newspapers, Chinese military officials see four areas where innovations in brain science could be weaponized.
“Brain emulation” refers to the development of high-intelligence robots that function like humans. “Brain control” is the integration of humans with machines into one, allowing soldiers to perform tasks ordinarily impossible to them. “Superbrain” involves the use of electromagnetic radiation, such as infrasonic waves or ultrasound, to stimulate human brains and activate the brain’s latent potential. The fourth, termed “controlling the brain,” is about applying advanced technology to interfere with—and manipulate—how people think.
Two faculty members with the military-affiliated Army Medical University in a 2018 paper discussed their state-funded project researching a piece of biotechnology dubbed “psycho-virus.” Applied in the military, such psychological weapon could help develop “super warriors” who are “loyal, brave, and strategic;” in wars, the psycho-virus could “manipulate the consciousness of the enemies, crush their will, and interfere with their emotions to make them submit to the will of our side,” the authors said.
Brain scientists may also aid the recovery of handicapped soldiers and systematically elevate the health protection of military personnel, according to a 2019 article on PLA Daily, the official newspaper for the Chinese military, known as the People’s Liberation Army.
While the Chinese Communist Party has been dedicated for years to “getting ahead of the biotechnology arms race,” the evolution of frontier technologies has brought added urgency, according to Sam Kessler, geopolitical adviser at North Star Support Group, a multinational risk management company.
The “improbable futuristic technology that had been dreamed up in the past has now become more realistic in real-time,” he wrote in a note to The Epoch Times. “This creates little room for error as a potential loss of dominance of such technology could potentially lead to the weakening of strategic barriers if left unchecked.”
Concerned about Chinese activities in biotechnology, the United States in December blacklisted China’s AMMS—the country’s top medical research institute run by the Chinese military—and its 11 affiliated biotechnology research institutes, accusing them of developing “purported brain-control weaponry” to further the Chinese military.
The Chinese regime did not comment on this aspect of the U.S. blacklisting. The AMMS could not be reached for comment, and China’s Ministry of National Defense did not return a request from The Epoch Times for comment.
Weeks before the move, the Commerce Department’s Industry and Security Bureau solicited public comments about a proposed rule to ban the export of brain-computer interface (BCI) technology, an emerging field that seeks to enable humans to directly communicate with an external device with just their thoughts.
Such technology would provide a “qualitative military or intelligence advantage” for U.S. adversaries, such as by “enhancing the capabilities of human soldiers, including collaboration for improved decision making, assisted-human operations, and advanced manned and unmanned military operations,” the Commerce Department said.
‘A Matter of China’s Future’
The United States has been at the forefront in the field of brain technology, with the world’s largest number of research papers published on the subject.
In April, Elon Musk’s neurotechnology startup Neuralink released a video showing a monkey playing computer games through a chip inserted in its brain. Synchron, a Silicon Valley developer of implantable neural interface technology, last week released seven tweets it said were sent wirelessly by an immobilized Australian patient who had received the company’s chip implant, known as Stentrode. The National Institutes of Health granted Synchron $10 million last July to help launch its first U.S. human trial.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, known as DARPA, has also researched BCI for military applications, such as an “Avatar” project that aimed to create a semi-autonomous machine to act as the soldier’s surrogate.
Beijing, closely tracking the developments in America, has demonstrated itself unwilling to stay behind. In January 2020, three months before Synchron began its first trial, eastern China’s Zhejiang University had completed testing of a brain implant on a 72-year-old paralyzed patient. Using his brainwaves, the patient could direct a robotic arm to perform handshakes, fetch drinks, and play a classic Chinese board game: Mahjong.
Over the past six years, Beijing has come to see progress on brain-related research as “a matter of China’s future,” according to Chinese media reports.
The country’s leading national scientific institution, the state-run Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), has poured around 60 billion yuan ($9.4 billion) annually into efforts to map out brain functions, its website shows. In September, China’s Ministry of Science and Technology opened up applications for research into the field, with an additional 3 billion yuan (about $471 million) allocated for 59 research streams.
The role of brain science has been significant enough that Chinese leader Xi Jinping has named it as a priority field of emerging technology significant for the country’s national security, and for making China a central hub for world’s cutting-edge scientific innovations.
“China is closer than in any time of history to the goal of rejuvenating the Chinese nation, and we need more than any time in history to build a world science and technology superpower,” he told CAS scholars in a 2018 speech.
Military ‘High Ground’
The Chinese regime is racing to close the gap with the United States in harnessing the power from this emerging technology.
In terms of the volume of published papers on brain technology, China is second only to America, Zhou Jie, a senior engineer with state-run scientific research institute China Academy of Information and Communications Technology, said at a recent forum on BCI. That number grew at a pace of 41 percent over the period of 2016 to 2020, more than double the global average of 19 percent, according to a May report co-written by a Beijing-based AI robot manufacturer and a think tank advising Beijing on big data and AI.
The stack of Chinese innovations on BCI has appeared to keep pace with the growing enthusiasm.
AMMS, the Chinese military academy under U.S. sanctions, has been at the forefront of neuroscience research. Inventions from the AMMS and its affiliates since 2018 include various nerve signals collection devices, miniature skull implants, a remote monitoring system for restoring damaged nerves, and wearable augmented reality glasses designed for enhancing robot control, according to open depository of patent applications.
In 2019, the Institute of Military Medicine under AMMS created a brain-controlled unmanned aerial vehicle. To move the vehicle forward, an operator puts on an electrode cap and imagines moving their right hand. Thinking about feet movement would instruct the machine to descend.
The AMMS’ National Defence Science and Technology Innovation Research Institute in 2021 acquired a patent for using virtual reality for spacecraft docking. The device interprets the astronaut’s brain and limb activities and converts them into orders to adjust the aircraft’s position in real-time.
While a sizable portion of innovations in BCI and other fields of brain technology has potential medical use, some may also be leveraged for military purposes.
One Chinese university previously touted unmanned combat via thought-controlled robots as a “high ground” in AI that China “must race to control.”
“Witness more miracles with Chinese characteristics in strengthening the army,” proclaimed the National University of Defense Technology, a military academy that supplies talent for China’s armed forces, as it showed off a list of brain-controlled devices produced by the university, including a wheelchair and a car that could travel roughly 9.3 miles per hour “on any road.”
“Together, let’s change the world with our ‘minds,’” the school declared in a post on its website last November.
The Epoch Times has reached out to the university for comment.
Calls for Self Reliance
The Commerce Department’s blocking rules may hinder or delay Beijing in its path of advancing biotech and brain-related technologies but are unlikely to slow it down, according to Grant Newsham, a senior fellow with the Center for Security Policy and a retired U.S. Marine Colonel.
“[T]he Chinese will simply maneuver a bit, change some names, and keep going full-speed ahead on these efforts to weaponize biotech,” he told The Epoch Times.
But the sanctions serve a useful purpose at home: “making it impossible for Americans (and others) who want to invest in and partner with the Chinese organizations to claim they ‘didn’t know’ what the Chinese were doing—or to argue that ‘it isn’t prohibited,’” he added.
Meanwhile, Chinese researchers have been focused on achieving self-sufficiency in this area.
In 2019, a research team at Tianjin University in northern China unveiled a “Brain Talker” chip, which linked to the brain through an electrode cap, that could decode a user’s mind intent and translate it into computer commands in under two seconds.
Fudan University, an elite public institution in Shanghai, in January presented a remote BCI chip that can be recharged wirelessly from outside the body, avoiding potential damage to the brain. The chip consumes only a tenth of the power of its Western counterparts and costs half as much, Chinese state media reported at the time.
The term “self-developed” was prominently featured in both team’s announcements and media reports.
Tao Hu, associate director at CAS’ Shanghai Institute of Microsystem and Information Technology, said China has the potential to lead the world in the field of BCI.
“China is not lagging behind foreign countries in terms of the design aspects for core BCI gear,” he wrote in a June article published on Chinese state media. He called on the country to step up resource allocation to accelerate BCI development, given the risk that the United States might block BCI exports to China.
China has a unique advantage to help it gain a leg up in the race: its vast bank of non-human primates, according to Poo Mu-ming, a key figure spearheading China’s brain research at CAS.
China has been the world’s top supplier for test monkeys but stopped shipping them once the pandemic began. Poo, who in 2008 switched from mice to monkeys as the test animal at his neuroscience institute at CAS, had long wanted to utilize the country’s test animal resources to boost China’s brain research standing, according to state media reports.
His team in 2017 cloned the world’s first pair of monkeys using the same method that produced Dolly the Sheep—a crucial step forward for China’s brain-related research. With the same cloning technology, Chinese scientists could mass produce, and experiment on, identical monkeys, eliminating interferences to experiments resulting from individual differences in test animals, Poo told Science Times, a newspaper under CAS last October.
The AMMS has also proposed studies into building a database for an “aggressive consciousness control weapon” that targets specific spiritual or ethnic groups.
Such a project was first mentioned as early as 2012 by the Institute of Radiation Medicine under AMMS. The database aimed to establish a collection of images and videos that could trigger aggressive behavior. Its proposed targets include “spiritual leaders, organizations and extreme religious groups who share the common belief, and ethnic groups who share similar traits in locations and lifestyle habits.”
China’s more lenient ethical bar compared to the West has provided it with more leeway to gain a foothold with their BCI-related experiments that would “greatly empower them and streamline their innovations,” according to Kessler.
In China, such experiments have “less red tape preventing them from using questionable testing practices,” he told The Epoch Times. “That makes all the difference in a world where one’s edge in technology and intelligence can depend greatly on how they manage their ability to stay ahead of the curve.”
Asked by a journal he oversaw if BCI technologies may one day “enslave” humans, Poo appeared undisturbed.
“If we have the confidence that our society will be able to develop mechanisms to control the use of technologies for our benefits, then we need not worry about AI,” he told the National Science Review, a peer-reviewed journal under the auspices of CAS, in 2017.
“Since the 1950s, many people have been worrying about the build-up of nuclear bombs and thought that we will soon be destroyed by a nuclear holocaust. But we still live quite well now, aren’t we?” he added.
Andrew Thornebrooke and Donna Ho contributed to this report.