Human enhancement technologies set to change UK workforce

07 November 2012

Technologies that enhance human functions such as memory, hearing and mobility could dramatically change how people work over the next decade, according to a workshop hosted by four of the UK’s national academies.

A new report, Human enhancement and the future of work, points out that although human enhancement technologies might improve performance and aid society, their use would raise serious ethical, philosophical, regulatory and economic issues that will need further consideration.

The report follows a joint workshop hosted by the Academy of Medical Sciences, the British Academy, the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Royal Society which considered cognitive enhancing drugs, bionic limbs and retinal implants among other current and emerging technologies that may revolutionise UK workplaces.  The report emphasises the immediate need for further discussion and debate around such issues as potential harm to individuals, coercion by employers and concerns related to equity and fairness.

To date, physical and cognitive enhancements have been developed primarily with the focus of restoration of function but increasingly drugs and enhancers are being used by healthy people. For example, Modafinil - a drug prescribed to treat sleep disorders has also been used to reduce impulsive behaviour. Researchers from Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts previously estimated that up to 16% of students in the USA use cognitive enhancers to improve performance, and that even some academics make use of enhancers to overcome jetlag and improve productivity for particularly challenging tasks.

Future advances in technology could result in a wide array of cognitive and physical enhancers being used by healthy people. For example, visual enhancement technologies, such as retinal implants, could be used in the military, for night watchmen, safety inspectors or gamekeepers. Enhanced night vision and the extension of the range of human vision to include additional wavelengths, could even come into play. 

Professor Genevra Richardson CBE FBA, chair of the committee steering group for the workshop, said:

“There are a range of technologies in development and in some cases already in use that have the potential to transform our workplaces – for better or for worse.

There are a few technologies that are likely to have a big impact in a relatively short space of time but there is a lot we don’t know yet about how these advances might affect work. What is clear is that a cross disciplinary approach will be needed to get a better understanding of how best to proceed. Scientists and engineers will need to work together with social scientists, philosophers, ethicists, policy-makers and the public to ensure that the benefits are realised while the risks are minimised.”

Further cognition enhancing technologies and issues raised at the workshop and covered in the report include:

  • cognitive training delivered by computer;
  • non-invasive brain stimulation techniques to improve learning;
  • drugs to  maintain cognitive functions in the ageing workforce;
  • collective cognition using computer technologies such as internet search engines and mobile mapping applications;
  • bionic limbs and exoskeletons

Although design of these technologies is continuously improving, several challenges remain in creating devices that even come close to mimicking the full functionality of human limbs, including control, energy efficiency and usability.

Dr Robin Lovell-Badge FRS FMedSci, one of the chairs at the workshop, said:

"It was clear from discussions that cognitive enhancing drugs present the greatest immediate challenge for regulators and other policymakers. They are simple to take, already available without prescription, and are increasingly being used by healthy individuals. However, other forms of enhancement, including physical methods, will follow. Some were on show at the Paralympics, some are being explored by the military, and others may become a serious option in the clinic in the not too distant future. It is good to see and to be excited by many of these developments, but there must be an equally watchful eye and care taken to ensure that the workforce can capitalise on the benefits, but not suffer the harms that could come about by their inappropriate use."