Experts raise concerns over superhuman workplace

November 7, 2012 by Raphael Satter

Performance-boosting drugs, powered prostheses and wearable computers are coming to an office near you—but experts warned in a new report Wednesday that too little thought has been given to the implications of a superhuman workplace.

Academics from Britain's leading institutions say attention needs to be focused on the consequences of technology which may one day allow—or compel—humans to work better, longer and harder. Here's their list of upgrades that might make their way to campuses and cubicles in the next decade:


Barbara Sahakian, a Cambridge professor, cited research suggesting that 16 percent of U.S. students already use "cognitive enhancers" such as Ritalin to help them handle their course loads. Pilots have long used amphetamines to stay alert. And at least one study has suggested that the drug modafinil could help reduce the number of accidents experienced by .

But bioethicist Jackie Leach Scully of 's Newcastle University worries that the use of such drugs might focus on over personal well-being.

"Being more alert for longer doesn't mean that you'll be less stressed by the job," she said. "It means that you'll be exposed to that stress for longer and be more awake while doing it."


The researchers also noted so-called "life-logging" devices like Nike Inc.'s distance-tracking shoes or wearable computers such as the eyeglasses being developed by . The shoes can record your every step; the eyeglasses everything you see. Nigel Shadbolt, an expert in at southern England's University of Southampton, said such devices were as little as 15 years away from being able to record every sight, noise and movement over an entire human life.

So do you accept if your boss gives you one?

"What does that mean for employee accountability?" Shadbolt asked.


The report also noted bionic limbs like the one used this week by amputee Zac Vawter to climb Chicago's Willis Tower or exoskeletons like the one used earlier this year by partially paralyzed London Marathon participant Claire Lomas. It also touched on the development of therapies aimed at sharpening eyesight or cochlear implants meant to enhance hearing.

Scully said any technology that could help disabled people re-enter the workforce should be welcomed but society needs to keep an eye out for unintended consequences.

"One of the things that we know about technology hitting society is that most of the consequences were not predicted ahead of time and a lot of things that we worry about ahead of time turn out not to be problems at all," she said. "We have very little idea of how these technologies will pan out."


The report was drawn up by scientists from The Academy of Medical Sciences, the British Academy, the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Royal Society.

"We're not talking science fiction here," said Genevra Richardson, the King's College law professor who oversaw the report. "These technologies could influence our ability to learn or perform tasks, they could influence our motivation, they could enable us to work in more extreme conditions or in old age, or they could facilitate our return to work after illness or disability .... Their use at work also raises serious ethical, political and economic questions."

Scully said workers may come under pressure to try a new memory-boosting drug or buy the latest wearable computer.

"In the context of a highly pressurized work environment, how free is the choice not to adopt such technologies?" she said.

Union representatives appeared taken aback by some of the experts' predictions. One expressed particular disquiet at the possibility raised by the report that long-distance truck drivers might be asked to take alertness drugs for safety reasons.

"We would be very, very against anything like that," said James Bower, a spokesman for Britain's United Road Transport Union. "We can't have a situation where a driver is told by his boss that he needs to put something in his body."

Explore further: Safety issue revealed as 1 in 20 Australian workers admits to drinking at work

More information: The report:


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3.3 / 5 (3) Nov 07, 2012
All the things mentioned are things that have to be dealt with daily anyway. These technologies, like anything in life, need to be taken one step at a time and used in "moderation" so as to prevent their abuse. I fail to see a problem.
3.3 / 5 (3) Nov 07, 2012
"We can't have a situation where a driver is told by his boss that he needs to put something in his body."

No problem. We'll use an autopilot enabled tractor.

What happens when 1 enhanced worker can obviously outproduce another, or two, or ten?

Even now, we simply don"t need everyone to work. Technologies are eliminating jobs and that process will only accelerate.

How are we going to value people's time if they rely heavily on enhancements for their ability to accomplish work?

The age of "the job" is ending. What now?
1.3 / 5 (3) Nov 07, 2012
The age of "the job" is ending. What now?
Judge Dredd will always have a job
3.4 / 5 (5) Nov 07, 2012
This is what happens when you let "glass-half-empty" people write a report. They highlight only the possible negatives while minimizing the positives. "Ethicists" are especially prone to this spirit deadening slant.
5 / 5 (2) Nov 08, 2012
"Beware the emptiness of a busy life" - Socrates
4.5 / 5 (2) Nov 08, 2012
Well, i remember as a kid my mom used to tell me TV is going to rule the world and turn people into brainless drones. I don't know if that was ever true, but know moms say the same thing about the internet. I bet sometime in the 20th century some people complained about the radio too.
5 / 5 (1) Nov 08, 2012
Pilots have long used amphetamines to stay alert. And at least one study has suggested that the drug modafinil could help reduce the number of accidents experienced by shift workers.
...and people in most any profession use coffee.

But seriously: if you want to use such drugs - go ahead. But be aware of the risks (and don't go crying to people if you get addicted or have other negative sie effects). However theuse of such drugs should never be mandatory.

So do you accept if your boss gives you one?

No. Being a boss does not mean that your coworkers are your slaves (and not even that they are your underlings).

The only place where I do see such augmentation (chemical, biological, or bionic) taking hold in the near future is the military. Soldiers are slaves, after all (because anyone whom you can order into a lethal situation on a whim certainly isn't anything else).
1 / 5 (1) Nov 08, 2012
If we are all to 'live long and prosper' which I think of as a reasonable aspiration for everybody, then we have to adopt 'triple bottom line' accounting.

what that means is that fiduciary duty must be seen as just one amongst three. Thus we need to be able to account for 'M' = money values, 'P' = people values, and 'E' = ecological values.

Economists, who are very often simply apologists for a very unjust status quo always like to respond to this with the idea that all issues and considerations _can_ be reduced to a matter of money payments.

The problem for the rest of us is that it is not true; it certainly has no scientific backing.
What I am looking at with careful scrutiny and analysis is how we can suss out three orthoganal dimensions of value. If we take 'value' per se to be the opposite of entropy I would say it might even be possible to create measurable criteria and mathematical representation of values in each of these dimensions.

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