Cognitive science research calls for new security initiatives

By Margaret E. Kosal, September 2, 2008

My colleagues have provided much for me to respond to. I’ll take up a few ideas: global cognitive science research and development, differentiating offensive from defensive research, and expanding the concept of technical security studies. The three overlap, and each deserves more in-depth consideration than I will present here.

In the United States and the West, cognitive science research funding has been steadily increasing during the last 30 years. Like the expanse of research that falls under the very general category of nanotechnology, the cognitive sciences are not confined to one or two single, narrow disciplines. During the past decade, the concept of “Nano-Bio-Cogno-Info (NBIC) convergence” has ebbed and swelled in popular and social science interest. While strong proponents, such as the National Science Foundation’s Mike Roco, have championed the concept, the scientific or technical communities have not formally or informally adopted NBIC convergence. Futurists and some social scientists, both academic and popular, are running with the idea as a way to envision revolutionary technologies. More technically robust consideration of this concept is needed from a science and engineering perspective. Organizational capacity and structure needs to be considered as well.

In thinking about the potential security impacts of the cognitive sciences, there is also a need to better understand the funding strategies, the institutions, the normative and ethical conceptions of certain research, and the role of public and private entities and sectors, and to disentangle rhetoric from reality. As Jonathan Moreno noted, this effort must reach beyond our own Western ways of thinking, including disciplinary stovepipes–both inside and outside of science. How these factors affect U.S. and Western pursuits of cognitive science research and application development may not be applicable to non-Western systems. Such efforts are more than purely academic pursuits of knowledge; this can be seen in the Defense Department’s Minerva Project, which recognizes the strategic importance of cross-cultural studies for security. Robust models of the impact of cognitive science on international security require analysts to consider complicated and cutting-edge scientific and technical concepts, as those of us in the technical security studies community appreciate. For those of us working with traditional international relations theories and theorists, these questions of emerging security impact are also prime opportunities to test previous models and illustrate the importance and potential of technical security studies.

Directly relevant to the potential strategic role of the cognitive sciences in international security is the question of how one delineates offensive research from defensive research. And what metric is used to make this determination? Within one branch of international relations theory, standard metrics for nuclear and other Cold War technology have been proposed, such as stealth and mobility. Yet, in thinking about the neurosciences, experimental psychology, and human performance technology, it is less than evident what the metrics for differentiating benign research and development from malevolent applications will be. Biotechnology’s dual-use conundrum may hint at the difficulty of “binning” advanced cognitive science research and development into offensive or defensive categories. This inherent ambiguity may challenge traditional international security models. It should not, however, be viewed as an impediment or a reason to curtail basic scientific research in the multidisciplinary fields of the cognitive sciences.

The cognitive sciences offer opportunities for new international security initiatives and policies that expand on basic research via social science methods and in the experimental laboratory. Like nanotechnology, the cognitive sciences may present an opportunity for proactive, Track II diplomacy among scientists around the world. This may also represent a means to further expand, in an evolutionary manner, aspects of Cooperative Threat Reduction, in which international parties start and pursue coordinated beneficial work, thereby establishing an international research foundation and a community of research practitioners to facilitate transparency in basic science and engineering. Creation, implementation, and effective execution of such initiatives should incorporate aspects of all three concepts I noted at the start of this piece.

Topics: Biosecurity