The Royal Society, along with the Academy of Medical Sciences, British Academy, and Royal Academy of Engineering, recently concluded a workshop called Human Enhancement and the Future of Work in which they considered the growing impact and potential risks of augmentation technologies.
In their final report, the collaborative team of scientists and ethicists raised serious concerns about the burgeoning trend, and how humanity is moving from a model of therapy to one in which human capacities are greatly improved. The implications, they concluded, should be part of a much wider public discussion.
Specifically, the report expressed concerns about drugs and digital technologies that will allow people to work harder, longer, and smarter. The resulting implications to work and human values, they argue, may not necessarily be a good thing. It's quite possible, they argue, that employers will start to demand (either implicitly or explicitly) that employees "augment" themselves with stimulants such as Aderall.
Similarly, the workshop considered the potential for other smart drugs that can enhance memory and attention, as well as physical and digital enhancements such as cybernetic implants and advanced machine-interfacing technologies.
From the report:
"Work will evolve over the next decade, with enhancement technologies potentially making a significant contribution. Widespread use of enhancements might influence an individual's ability to learn or perform tasks and perhaps even to enter a profession; influence motivation; enable people to work in more extreme conditions or into old age, reduce work-related illness or facilitate earlier return to work after illness."
At the same time however, they acknowledge the potential efficacy and demand for such technologies, prompting the call for open discourse. Again, from the report:
"Although enhancement technologies might bring opportunities, they also raise several health, safety, ethical, social and political challenges, which warrant proactive discussion. Very different regulatory regimes are currently applied: for example, digital services and devices (with significant cognitive enhancing effects) attract less, if any, regulatory oversight than pharmacological interventions. This raises significant questions, such as whether any form of self-regulation would be appropriate and whether there are circumstances where enhancements should be encouraged or even mandatory, particularly where work involves responsibility for the safety of others (e.g. bus drivers or airline pilots)."
Indeed, the details of the report, while most certainly reasonable, are also exceedingly obvious. In a way, it's as if the workshop participants are late to the show and only now trying to get the word out. And in fact, given the popularity (and rampant misuse) of stimulants such as Provigil and the tremendous interest in nootropics (i.e. cognitive enhancers), the report does seem long overdue.
The panel's recommendations, such as further investigations into ensuring safety, affordability, and accessibility are most certainly welcome. And their suggestion that some of these enhancement technologies -- whether they be pharmaceutical, regenerative medicines, or cybernetics -- should be regulated by the government is spot on. Given the potential for personal misuse, not to mention the potential exploitation by employers, would most certainly necessitate the need for regulatory oversight.
And perhaps most encouragingly, rather than reacting hysterically and calling for an outright ban on enhancement technologies, the panelists have outlined a roadmap for getting these technologies integrated into our lives in a safe and effective way.
The entire report can be read here (pdf).
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