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Workshop report - Human enhancement and the future of work

The Human enhancement and the future of work project explored potential enhancements arising from advances in science and engineering that are likely to impact on the future of work.

Key messages identified by participants at a workshop in March 2012 included:

  • Enhancement technologies could change how people work. Work will evolve over the next decade, with enhancement technologies potentially making a significant contribution. Widespread use of enhancements might influence an individual’s ability to learn or perform tasks and perhaps even to enter a profession; influence motivation; enable people to work in more extreme conditions or into old age, reduce work-related illness; or facilitate earlier return to work after illness.
  • Empirical data are needed to guide policy. ‘Known unknowns’ need to be addressed by studies on short- and longterm impacts (both positive and negative) of enhancements on individuals with detailed consideration of social and ethical impacts using deliberative dialogue with users, potential users and wider society and the development of a market map to guide commercialisation. Continuous monitoring to inform the re-assessment of any policy or regulatory decisions is vital but will also require these underpinning data.
  • Policy must be informed by open dialogue. We must engage publics in open dialogue about the prospects of enhancement technologies and how they might be used at work, particularly given that use at work would affect the entire population, both those employed and not employed. Sources of input should include users of enhancements, older populations, trade unions, as well as those with expertise with novel innovations and technologies. Policy-makers and publics must be equipped to recognize circumstances in which, for example, claims around the benefits of new technologies are inflated.
  • The cost of technologies will be crucial. Cost and cost–benefit analysis are clearly key factors in determining who funds provision, which in turn will impact on equality and justice. Cost also drives investment decisions and will therefore be important in determining commercialization opportunities.
  • The availability of enhancements will be influential. Although the cost of some enhancement technologies will render them inaccessible to all but the very few, raising questions of equality and justice, other technologies such as pharmacological cognition enhancers, are already readily available through the internet—posing imminent challenges for effective regulation. Likewise, digital devices and services with the potential to influence cognition are emerging continuously with little research into the risks and benefits.
  • Interdisciplinary approaches will be key to moving forward. In developing new technologies, whether they are cognitive training or bionic limbs, interdisciplinary approaches will facilitate better understanding of how best to proceed. This also applies to implementation: if any enhancement is seen as valuable, scientists need to work together with social scientists, philosophers, ethicists, policy-makers and the public to discuss the ethical and moral consequences of enhancement, and thus to harness maximum benefit with minimal harm.

The report of the workshop is a record of the discussion that took place at the event, and does not necessarily reflect the policy of the academies.