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Anjana Ahuja
Freelance science writer and events chair
Anjana  Ahuja

Keep taking the pills: your job may depend on it

Authors: Anjana Ahuja Anjana Ahuja

05 June 2013

Don’t you wish you could do your job just that little bit better? If you’re on a physically demanding assembly line, maybe you wish you could stand for longer without tiring. If you’re a currency trader, perhaps you dream of the fortune you could make if your reactions were sharper.

Astonishingly, the technology already exists to make both of those wishes come true. Companies are building exoskeleton suits that could allow soldiers to operate with heavy loads on the battlefield. And drugs are already used widely, if under the radar: Ritalin to boost short-term memory, and modafinil by sleep-deprived doctors and students to improve alertness. Human enhancement is here, and it has the potential to revolutionise both the workplace and the workers who occupy it. That makes it a fantastic, if faintly scary, subject for the Work Foundation to have chosen for its annual debate this year.

The importance of the subject was also recognised by a report, Human Enhancement and the Future of Work, compiled by some of the country’s top scientists and published in November 2012.The coalition that produced this overview of the technologies available  – the Academy of Medical Sciences, the British Academy, the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Royal Society – felt that the prospect of hyper-alert, titanium-limbed, retinal-enhanced superworkers was not some feverish, futuristic fantasy. To quote from the report’s introduction: “Work will evolve over the next decade, with enhancement technologies potentially making a significant contribution.”

Enhancements can be ‘restorative’ (such as a hearing aid) or push abilities ‘beyond the norm’, such as robotic limbs. They could help older people to work longer, allow disabled people to enter the workforce, enable people to work for longer in harsher environments and to extend working hours. The 9-5, already fast disappearing, will become extinct.

We can already envisage the social, political and ethical issues this will raise. Will employees be coerced into having enhancements? Will it be possible to enter the labour market at all if you shun them? If older workers can march on forever, how will young people get jobs? Will it become an insurance requirement for long-distance drivers and airline pilots to take alertness drugs? In an era of global competitiveness, could countries like China embark on national enhancement programmes for their citizens? If the robots really are coming, as Kevin Warwick contends, will there be any place for human emotion?

So far, I have embraced the enhancements that allow me to be a better journalist: dictaphone, Google, Skype, caffeine. I am metaphorically welded to my smartphone. Philosophically speaking, how much bigger a deal is it to become biologically welded to such technology, as the poll asks? I suspect your answer may depend on your age – and how desperate you are to get a job. If you take smart pills to get one over your colleagues, perhaps your conscience won’t allow you to sleep at night. Then again, you can get pills for that too.