Cover: Brain-Computer Interfaces

Brain-Computer Interfaces

U.S. Military Applications and Implications, An Initial Assessment

Published Aug 27, 2020

by Anika Binnendijk, Timothy Marler, Elizabeth M. Bartels


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واجهات الدماغ والحاسوب التطبيقات العسكريّة الأمريكيّة والتداعيات: تقييمٌ أوّليٌّ

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Research Questions

  1. What is the potential operational significance of current and future developments regarding BCI?
  2. What are the risk and policy considerations necessary for effective management of the technology with an understanding of its potential impact on the future warfighter?
  3. What institutional vulnerabilities may accompany BCI deployment, such as challenges surrounding a deficit of trust in BCI technologies or potential erosion of unit cohesion, unit leadership, and other critical interpersonal military relationships?
  4. What might future U.S. government ethical and legal responsibilities be to an individual BCI operator? What implications might BCI technologies have on the ethical and legal responsibilities of that individual?

The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) has invested in the development of technologies that allow the human brain to communicate directly with machines, including the development of implantable neural interfaces able to transfer data between the human brain and the digital world. This technology, known as brain-computer interface (BCI), may eventually be used to monitor a soldier's cognitive workload, control a drone swarm, or link with a prosthetic, among other examples. Further technological advances could support human-machine decisionmaking, human-to-human communication, system control, performance enhancement and monitoring, and training. However, numerous policy, safety, legal, and ethical issues should be evaluated before the technology is widely deployed. With this report, the authors developed a methodology for studying potential applications for emerging technology. This included developing a national security game to explore the use of BCI in combat scenarios; convening experts in military operations, human performance, and neurology to explore how the technology might affect military tactics, which aspects may be most beneficial, and which aspects might present risks; and offering recommendations to policymakers. The research assessed current and potential BCI applications for the military to ensure that the technology responds to actual needs, practical realities, and legal and ethical considerations.

Key Findings

  • Despite valid concerns, BCI can likely be useful for future military operations.
  • The application of BCI would support ongoing DoD technological initiatives, including human-machine collaboration for improved decisionmaking, assisted-human operations, and advanced manned and unmanned combat teaming.
  • BCI falls subject to the capability-vulnerability paradox, with counterweighted benefits and risks. Precautions will need to be taken to mitigate vulnerabilities to DoD operations and institutions and to reduce potential ethical and legal risks associated with DoD's development and adoption of BCI technologies.


  • Expand analysis to illuminate operational relevance and risks.
  • Address the trust deficit, as cultural barriers among service members will likely be high.
  • Collaborate with the private sector to anticipate and leverage its developments.
  • Plan ahead for BCI technology's institutional implications, such as ethical and policy issues.

Research conducted by

Funding for this research was provided by gifts from RAND supporters and income from operations. The research was conducted by the Center for Global Risk and Security.

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