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Making Master Chief: The science behind Halo's super soldiers
All things considered, you probably don't want to be a Spartan.
The new Halo series on Paramount+ differs from the wildly popular video game series in several ways, but there's one important thing that's remained the same. John-117, more commonly known as Master Chief, is still a genetically enhanced Spartan super soldier and he is still humanity's best hope against an invading alien civilization known as The Covenant.
Super soldiers have a long and storied tradition in science fiction, particularly science fiction, and as we all know life sometimes imitates art. Various research groups, sometimes funded by world governments, have attempted to build the next generation of fighting forces for decades through the use of biological or technological enhancements. So, how close are we to making our very own Master Chief?
Attempts at building super soldiers have been ongoing for decades and despite those efforts, they haven't amounted to much. At least as far as we know. There are a number of ways in which a human being could be modified to make them a better war machine.
You can only fight when you're awake and a sleepy soldier isn't an effective soldier. To that end, governments have attempted, through various means, to keep their armed forces awake for longer stretches. Early programs involved distributing various stimulants like coffee, tobacco, tea, and even amphetamines and cocaine to keep soldiers awake on the battlefield.
Things got a little better in this arena in the early ‘90s when the Air Force looked toward Modafinil as an alternative to the addictive and unhealthy stimulants of the past. According to research from the time, unlike amphetamines, Modafinil didn't appear to be addictive or have many other negative side effects.
Staying awake and vigilant longer isn't the only thing the military has tried to enhance the capabilities of soldiers. During World War II, the United States Navy had an interest in improving the vision of their sailors by allowing them to see into the infrared. The idea was that infrared sight would give them a form of night vision, making them more effective fighters in the dark.
The experiments involved feeding the sailors the livers of walleyed pikes in the hopes that the vitamins contained therein might alter the eyes' sensitivity to different frequencies of light. According to the Navy, participants did experience a change in their vision but the experiments were ultimately scrapped when technological night vision became available.
It's worth mentioning that modern “bio-hackers” have attempted to repeat the experiments using vitamin A2 over the course of 25 days. They claim to have been successful at altering their vision but there is, understandably, some contention about their methods and results within the scientific community.
More recently, there have been claims that both China and France are embarking on renewed super soldier programs. Information about the Chinese program is sparse, but the French are hoping to improve physical and mental abilities through a combination of drugs, surgery, and genetic engineering.
If prior attempts at creating enhanced soldiers are any indication, it's likely the results won't live up to the ambition. That said, our ability to understand and manipulate DNA has drastically improved over the last couple of decades, making it faster and more affordable. If ever there was a time when we could figure out how to build designer humans, it might be now.
Attempts at biological night vision fell to the wayside as soon as a technological solution presented itself and the same might be true of other aspects of human enhancement. Messing with our biology suddenly loses its appeal when you can get the same results with machines.
To that end, the military has tried its hand at a number of different mechanical exoskeletons which could feasibly serve to make the wearers faster, stronger, and at least a little more bullet proof. In 2014 President Obama announced, while speaking about the “year of action” that the United States was working on building Iron Man. The U.S. government didn't have a working device, but they were hoping to get one. It even had a name, the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit, TALOS for short. The fully functional suit they were hoping for didn't materialize but it did drive some innovations in assistive technologies, and the United States military is still working the concept.
Just this week, according to Military and Aerospace Electronics, the United States Army renewed their call for powered exoskeletons for use on the battlefield. Even off the battlefield, full and partial exoskeletons are a continued avenue of research for the help they could provide to humanity overall.
One of the major challenges to a functioning exoskeleton is getting the technology to communicate effectively with the body, allowing them to work in concert. Research carried out by scientists at Harvard and published in the journal Science Robotics, deals with an improved system which gathers ultrasound information from the leg muscles to direct the robotic elements of a wearable exosuit in real time.
To date, evolution is still the best mechanism we have for improving the performance of living organisms, which means we'll have to rely on our own frail forms to live, survive, and sometimes fight. That's probably going to remain true for the foreseeable future. Luckily for us, no alien alliance has revealed its intention to wipe humanity off the face of the galaxy.