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Superhuman Workplace: will enhancements be standard?

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Pilots with retinal implants to see at night. Surgeons on stimulants operate with a steady hand. Executives taking cognitive enhancers remain focused during presentations.

Scientific advances are bringing human enhancements into the workplace. While bionic limbs and exoskeletons are helping disabled people reenter the workforce, various forms of enhancement are being used increasingly by healthy people.

Sure, they’ve got the potential to help society and boost productivity, but these enhancements bring with them a range of ethical dilemmas, according to a new report.

"We're not talking science fiction here, we're talking about advances that could impact significantly on the way we work," says study coauthor Genevra Richardson at King's College London.

  • Modafinil, a generic drug prescribed for sleep disorders like narcolepsy, is often used by academics or business leaders traveling to conferences to reduce fatigue and overcome jetlag.
  • Cognitive enhancers used by healthy people to increase focus include Novartis's Ritalin and Shire's Adderall, which are prescribed for conditions like ADHD.
  • Visual enhancement technologies, such as retinal implants, could be used by the military, night watchmen, and safety inspectors.
  • Technologies to enhance night vision or extend of the range of human vision to include other wavelengths such as ultra-violet light could become a reality relatively soon.
  • Life-logging devices like Nike's distance-tracking shoes or wearable computers such as the eyeglasses being developed by Google make it one day possible to for you – and your boss -- record every sight and movement over your lifetime.

In this highly pressurized work environment, if employers can squeeze more productivity out of their workforce, would this lead them to coerce workers into using enhancements against their will?

With stimulant drugs, there’s a lack of long-term safety studies in healthy people, so there may be unknown risks ahead. Other problems include whether or not cognitive enhancers are fair. Is it cheating to take an exam after boosting your mental focus with a drug? Where do you draw the line?

The report was published this week after a workshop held by the Academy of Medical Sciences, the British Academy, the Royal Academy of Engineering, and the Royal Society.

[Via Reuters, AP, King’s College London]

Image: Human enhancement and the future of work project

— By on November 8, 2012, 1:49 PM PST

Janet Fang

Contributing Editor

Janet Fang has written for Nature, Discover and the Point Reyes Light. She is currently a lab technician at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. She holds degrees from the University of California, Berkeley and Columbia University. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure