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."

Human enhancement and the future of work, a joint report of a workshop held by the Academy of Medical Sciences, the British Academy, the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Royal Society is released today (6 November 2012) and is available for download:
Human enhancement and the future of work (596.56 KB)

Notes for editors

  1. For further information or to arrange interviews on the report, please contact Nicola Kane, Media Relations at the Royal Society on 020 7451 2508.
  2. The Academy of Medical Sciences is the independent body in the UK representing the diversity of medical science. Our mission is to promote medical science and its translation into benefits for society. The Academy’s elected Fellows are the United Kingdom’s leading medical scientists from hospitals, academia, industry and the public service. For further information visit  www.acmedsci.ac.uk contact Holly Rogers, Communications Officer on 020 3176 2183 or follow @acmedsci on Twitter for updates.
  3. The British Academy for the humanities and social sciences. Established by Royal Charter in 1902. Its purpose is to inspire, recognise and support excellence and high achievement in the humanities and social sciences, throughout the UK and internationally, and to champion their role and value. For more information, please visit  www.britac.ac.uk or contact Kate Rosser Frost, Press & Communications Manager at the British Academy on or 020 7969 5263.

    Follow the British Academy on Twitter  @britac_news
  4. Founded in 1976, the Royal Academy of Engineering promotes the engineering and technological welfare of the country. Our fellowship – comprising the UK’s most eminent engineers – provides the leadership and expertise for our activities, which focus on the relationships between engineering, technology, and the quality of life. As a national academy, we provide independent and impartial advice to Government; work to secure the next generation of engineers; and provide a voice for Britain’s engineering community.

    Follow the Academy on Twitter at:  twitter.com/RAEngNews
  5. The Royal Society is a self-governing Fellowship of many of the world’s most distinguished scientists drawn from all areas of science, engineering, and medicine. The Society’s fundamental purpose, as it has been since its foundation in 1660, is to recognise, promote, and support excellence in science and to encourage the development and use of science for the benefit of humanity.
    The Society’s strategic priorities emphasise its commitment to the highest quality science, to curiosity-driven research, and to the development and use of science for the benefit of society. These priorities are:

    - Promoting science and its benefits
    - Recognising excellence in science
    - Supporting outstanding science
    - Providing scientific advice for policy
    - Fostering international and global cooperation
    - Education and public engagement

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