An arms race of a different kind has officials in the United States worried. Handout.

Harvard scientist Charles Lieber was arrested last week and charged with one count of giving “materially false, fictitious and fraudulent statements” to the United States government and the FBI.

What marks the case as unusual is that a prestigious specialist at one of America’s top universities was criminally charged for what appears to be a less-than-candid response to questions about government contracts.

Typically, “paperwork” problems would be dealt with administratively, as the US would be reluctant to lose the services of a distinguished scientist. Instead, Lieber’s case was lumped together with two China-related cases of spying and smuggling.

Also charged were two Chinese citizens, one allegedly secretly a member of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). She was charged with visa fraud, making false statements, acting as a foreign agent in the United States and conspiracy. A second person was charged with smuggling biological material to China.

Lieber is a specialist in nanotechnologies, a field that is getting billions of investment dollars from the US government, including the Defense Department (DOD), and from the private sector. The US sees itself in a tense competition with China in this field for both commercial and national security reasons.

Military applications

This competition, and specifically the potential military applications, are creating considerable anxiety in the US military as China becomes more deeply involved in investment and the possible theft of American know-how and technology.

Criminal, rather than administrative, charges against Lieber suggest US authorities were deeply alarmed by his activities in China and were aimed at ending his professional association with that country.

The specific specialty developed by Lieber and of possible strategic interest to the DOD is “mesh technology at nano-scale.” A nano-scale mesh device offers considerable opportunities over rigid electrodes implanted in the human brain.

“Lieber,” wrote one medical professional, “has made a huge difference with ultra-flexible mesh electronics, which promise to deliver what he calls ‘precision electronic medicine.’ These hardly activate an immune response, but remain very close to the cells they are intended to spy on.”

Lieber is one of the top scientists involved with Elon Musk in a rather secretive startup company called Neuralink. Musk has invested US$100 million of his own money and raised another $58 million for Neuralink, which now has a staff of 90.

The company is exploring brain-machine interfaces, using what Musk calls “flexible threads” that have the potential of transferring a higher volume of data, according to a White Paper credited to Musk & Neuralink. The abstract notes that the system could include “as many as 3,072 electrodes per array distributed across 96 threads. The threads are 4 to 6 μm in width, which makes them considerably thinner than a human hair. In addition to developing the threads, Neuralink’s other big advance is a machine that automatically embeds them.”

Weapons-building programs

There are many applications of this futuristic technology including improved medical therapies for brain-related disorders and bridging connections between man and machines.

Why would this be of interest to the US military – or to China?

Robotics, artificial intelligence (AI) and nanotechnology are at the forefront of weapons-building programs, with China the main current competitor to the US. LTG Robert P Ashley, Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), addressed the subject before the Association of the US Army.

He focused directly on China, warning that China is “merging artificial intelligence with humans” using nanotechnology as the connective bridge. DIA, he said, “sees this as a major concern for the future of warfare.”

Using nanotechnology to link the brain to machines and sensors, and AI to arbitrate the linkage, has roots that go back decades and involve the use of drugs and psychological techniques to manipulate the human brain. Horrid experiments were carried out by Nazi Germany on concentration camp inmates.

Japan did the same through its infamous chemical and biological weapons operation called Unit 731, which conducted experiments on prisoners. The Nazis and Japanese shared information on the results.

Human testing

At the end of WWII, under Operation Paperclip, the CIA and Defense Department brought Nazi scientists back to the United States, including many who were engaged in using concentration camp inmates as subjects.

One, BG (Generalarzt) Walter Paul Emil Schreiber, served in the Nazi Wehrmacht and the SS, where he was involved in assessing results of human testing at Dachau. Once in the US, he worked at the Air Force School of Medicine at Randolph Air Force Base in Texas. When his background was exposed by news reporters, the US Air Force slipped him and his family out of the country on a military plane to Argentina.

Meanwhile, the CIA continued experimenting with humans, using both psychological techniques and psychotropic drugs for another 22 years (1953-1975) when brain research activity was apparently discontinued after Congressional hearings by the Church Committee – formally the Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities.

Have the man-machine interface, nanotechnology, robotics and AI taken the place of earlier experimentation with drugs for mind control?  It is impossible to say, but it is clear the US believes China is in pursuit of this technology for military use.

Charles Lieber’s work with the Chinese, and his alleged failure to fully disclose the fact, certainly triggered the Defense Department and intelligence community’s concerns and more than likely they pushed the FBI and the Department of Justice to bring about Lieber’s indictment, using what appear to be numerous email and communications intercepts to build their case, many of which are in the unsealed indictment.

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