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Human enhancement and the future of work

Human enhancement and the future of work is a recently issued report from a joint workshop hosted by the Academy of Medical Sciences, the British Academy, the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Royal Society in the United Kingdom. This detailed and thoughful study is destined to become a landmark in the history of Transhumanism and specifically human enhancement. The report covers both cognitive and physical enhancement, and implications for the work environment as well as both possibilities and risks are discussed. The focus here is on how cognitive and physical enhancements will impact the work environment and individual’s ability to work. Other implications of individual enhancement are not generally covered.

Both the enhancement of “normal” individuals and restoration individuals with various sorts of disabilities resulting from disease or accident are discussed. Although this report is intended to inform U.K. policy makers, many of the  issues discussed will apply anywhere enhancements are allowed. Under Cognitive Enhancement, enhancement through use of psycho-pharmaceuticals is discussed at length as is brain stimulation and the use of software for accelerating learning in combination with other methods. Physical enhancements are discussed as well especially as related to the physically disabled. Enhancement technologies of course may also be used as restorative measures, for example cochlear implants might be used to restore hearing lost due to noise exposure or to provide super sensitive hearing beyond the usual normal hearing range to an otherwise normal person.

Within the work environment, an important question is whether employers will be allowed to require employees to use specific enhancements as a term of employment. A further related consideration is whether disabled individuals who receive government aid can be required by the state to accept restorative measures that would allow them to return to the work force. Should society provide care for someone that refuses cybernetic legs or taking a specific drug? Of particular importance in the U.K. and a number of other countries are enhancements that would allow older individuals to remain healthier and employable for longer. Like many nations, the U.K. faces an aging population and workforce with a corresponding increase in the percentage of the population suffering from age related diseases such as dementia and Alzheimers Disease.

On the positive side, this report provides an accessible and up to date assessment of available or near term means of human enhancement. One limitation, the report looks specifically at human enhancements, and does not consider other technology developments that will also impact the nature of the work environment. These include advanced human computer interfaces, virtual reality and telepresence, robotics, advanced manufacturing technologies, and much more.  These developments will  impact the nature of how, where, and when people work as much or more than the specific human enhancements discussed, and these forces will in large part shape the social-technological environment in which enhancements will be used.

One interesting area that is briefly discussed is the use of pharmaceuticals to adjust the body’s clock. In combination with video conferencing and telepresence, chemical treatment of “shift” work side effects might also allow for workers to engage in extreme “crunch mode” work binges as are common in software development (my profession). In software development it is not uncommon for the last 4-6 weeks before a product launch to consist of 7 day weeks with long hours and “all nighters”.  Chemical enhancement might allow developers to compete effectively in the global market regardless of time zone differences and it might also make it difficult for un-enhanced workers to compete at all.

The use of performance enhancing chemicals is highly controversial. For example, on the eve of the recent U.S Presidential Election, Republican candidate Mitt Romney appeared on Monday Night Football and spoke out against the use of performance enhancing drugs in sports. In China, college students could face compulsory drug tests due to widespread use of  “cognitive enhancers” employed to improve test performance. It is therefore particularly notable and interesting that this report does not come out 100% against the use of enhancements but considers both benefits and risks in context.

The report is at its weakest when it enters speculation about risks related to hypothetical enhancements. For example, one potential risk of memory enhancing substances might be the inability to forget negative memories. While this might be true, the most likely risk from performance enhancing chemicals broadly is likely to be other negative effects on the body and mind such as toxicity to the liver or kidneys, raising cancer risks, increases in anxiety or aggression, etc. Since the mechanisms employed by the hypothetical memory enhancing drug are unknown, we can not realistically assess its risk in any of these areas. Toxicity seems to be a much more likely public health issue from use of chemical cognitive enhancement for example. The more speculative risks like inability to forget bad memories make good headlines but seem out of place in this report. The report does also cover the more mundane health risks and related public health issues.

Download a copy of the report here.

Looking for more detailed and policy related technical reports on Transhumanism?

You might also enjoy these older but still interesting items.

Human Enhancement Drugs: The Emerging Challenges to Public Health (U.K.)


Human Enhancement Study (E.U.)



AAAS Good, Bad, Best: The Human Quest for Enhancement (U.S.)

Sandia Labs Report Policy Implications of Technologies for Cognitive Enhancement (U.S.)