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How Smart Drugs and Cybernetics Could Create a Superhuman Workforce

Imagine that those technologies used by the military to augment soldiers are turning you into a super-worker capable of moving ahead in your profession, and up the career ladder with beyond-human, almost Übermenschen abilities.

Imagine becoming superhuman. Or, at the very least, becoming superhumanly good at your job. A new prescription allows you total focus. Total composure. Genius-level clarity of thought, and the ability to stay up, in the zone, for two days straight. Aural and optical implants, gene transfers, and even bionics keep you sharp and operating at peak ability well into your retirement years.

Imagine that those technologies used by the military to augment soldiers are turning you into a super-worker capable of moving ahead in your profession, and up the career ladder, with beyond-human, almost Übermenschen abilities.


Now, imagine that everyone in your office is on the same tip. Imagine that you’re being forced to stay in line, too, just to keep up—that you're becoming a medical experiment in human efficiency just to retain your job.

The latest research suggests that we're not too far off from this sort of labor ecosystem. A new report compiled by the Royal Society (the United Kingdom’s national science academy) summarizes the findings of British academics, doctors, professionals and futurists, and it suggests, somewhat cautiously, that jacked-up worker ants could soon be marching en masse.

“Work will evolve over the next decade,” the report, titled Human enhancement and the future of work, states, “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.”

Those “enhancements” include chemical cocktails, such as the sleep-annihilating drug Modafinil, and surgical improvements like directed-brain stimulation and bionic limbs. While many of these technologies are already available, their increasing proliferation in the workplace is expected to raise serious issues. Will those who can't afford them be hopelessly outpaced by those who can? Even more disturbingly, will workers soon be socially pressured, or even overtly coerced into going superhuman?




Many of the technologies the report describes are still in early development stages. Still others, including Modafinil, are already widespread. Sometimes marketed as Provigil, it’s a drug designed to treat narcolepsy. It allows users to stay awake and productive for up to two days straight. Not surprisingly, Modafinil cuts across professional and class lines, appealing to students, professionals, truck drivers, soldiers, and anybody else who might need to stay alert for extended periods of time.

Modafinil and other cognitive enhancers are becoming de rigeur for students, with users potentially extending the habit later into their careers. Dr. Barbara Sahakian, Professor of Clinical Neuropsychology at the University of Cambridge, suggests that 16 percent of American students are on cognitive-boosting drugs.

The drug--which is being studied by select researchers as a potential addiction treatment for that other workplace marching-powder standby, cocaine--is a favorite among doctors, scientists and academics, with the performance of users clearly outpacing those who don’t. It’s even used on the International Space Station to manage the sleep disruptions caused by experiencing sixteen sunsets and sunrises a day.

“A 2011 study found that Modafinil reduces impulsive behavior and improves cognitive flexibility in sleep-deprived doctors,” the Royal Society report continues. “There is evidence that cognitive-enhancing drugs such as Modafinil can increase motivation and the pleasure gained from performing routine cognitive tasks, compared with placebo.”


Casual users also share their success stories. “I have never felt this sort of mental clarity in my entire life,” wrote Jay Bee, a 25 year-old user who documented his Modafinil habits on Erowid, a drug research website. “I simply felt logical, in control and irrational thoughts were turned away at the door, more or less.”

Yet while Modafinil is generally touted as a drug with few side-effects, the report is quick to highlight the lack of research into health risks: “The long-term side effects of such drugs, and in fact most human enhancement technologies, in healthy individuals are unknown,” it cautions.

Erowid is also home to several stories of adverse reactions, mental hell-rides and even reports of addiction. One 26 year-old user, giving his name only as “Mark,” reported using both Modafinil and the over-the-counter cognitive enhancer Piracetam. He writes that the combo “ruined my life.” It left him so robotically fixed on repetitive tasks (obsessively reading Wikipedia for ten hours at a time, say) that he destroyed his social life and marriage, claiming that the drug also blotted out his awareness of just how drastically his personality was changing.

“If I could have one wish in the world,” Mark wrote on Erowid, “it would be to go back to February 2009 and make the decision never to take a single Modafinil.”

If that’s the type of “productivity” that long-term Modafinil users can expect, the prospect of a chemically enhanced workforce is less than thrilling, raising the specter of corporations, in power positions and with so many people desperate for work, implementing Draconian conditions for employment.



Transcranial magnetic stimulation set up (via Johns Hopkins)

Everything from cognitive training via video games to targeted brain stimulation techniques to bionics may also be used to boost workers’ performance and focus, keeping them operating at peak levels even into advanced age.

Neurofeedback, for instance, may be a good intervention for attention and impulsivity issues, improving worker focus and productivity—especially in the age of Internet distraction. Cognitive training has been found to improve memory, reasoning and processing speed in individuals older than 65, which may help workers stay effective on the job and able to work later in life.

Video games, in particular, have been observed to boost focus and skill. “Research with surgeons indicates that those who regularly play video games pick up certain surgery skills more quickly and that training on video games appears to improve performance," the report states. "Studies also indicate that gaming can provide transferable skills to army pilots."

Dr. Roi Cohen Kadosh, Wellcome Research Career Development Fellow at the University of Oxford, suggests options like transcranial magnetic stimulation—in which a magnetic coil is placed on top of the skull and used to directly stimulate portions of the brain—and transcranial electrical stimulation, in which electrodes attached to the head modulate neuronal excitability in targeted areas. These technologies have been shown to bolster cognition and learning ability, and no negative side effects have been observed as of yet. And it’s relatively cheap and non-invasive, too.


But we’re maybe not quite there, at least not yet.

“The potential of non-invasive cognitive enhancement for the development of intelligence is currently unknown, and it waits for studies in this field," Dr. Kadosh explained over email. "Taking into account the current progress, it is likely that some of these devices will be widely available. It will need to be coupled with good cognitive training, and with a good understanding of the relevant brain regions that are involved in the cognitive skill that one wishes to enhance. We’re still not at this stage, and this might require a few more years, and maybe even more.”

The Royal Society report still largely considers most incoming technological modification to be restorative in nature—hearing aids, retinal implants, gene transfer, bionic limbs, exoskeletons, tissue engineering and even cosmetic surgery to keep an aging workforce looking and performing younger.

All of these technologies, of course, could conceivably be scaled up past the point of restoration. Hearing, for instance, might be boosted to new levels, as Dr. Brian Moore, Professor of Auditory Perception at the University of Cambridge, told me over email.

“There may be possibilities to enhance hearing beyond ‘normal’ by means of highly directional microphones,” Moore wrote. “There are also possibilities for making sounds audible that would be outside the normal range of audibility … via frequency shifting. I don't think that there are many possibilities for enhancing the basic sense of hearing, but it might be possible to make ears more robust than normal to the effects of intense sounds, via certain drugs. ”


While such advances don’t quite land us in Robocop territory, these technologies are coming, and may eventually make dramatic changes in workforce dynamics.



As the workforce ages, and the nature of work becomes more and more about information management, workers will be subjected to a completely new set of stresses. Enhancement technologies are expected to help alleviate these stresses. But chief among the concerns of the Royal Society report's authors is that employee enhancement may become a patch for problems in the workplace, allowing companies to dope or implant their workers to keep them marching harder, instead of addressing managerial problems or economic realities.

It’s also possible that the use of cognitive and physical enhancement may become expected, or even coerced. The image of 21st Century digital sweatshops, with workers tied to their computers and Modafinil drips, is not pleasant.

Another major issue is cost. The expense of these technologies may form a class barrier, meaning that those with the resources to obtain and use them may speed ahead in the workforce, while those who can’t get them will lag behind at an even greater rate. The acceleration of workers’ performance may also come at the expense of their rights.

From the report:

One of the key issues raised in relation to enhancement technologies is the potential for social pressure to lead individuals to be ‘coerced’ into using enhancers. This applies particularly to work as it is an inherently competitive activity; both at an organizational level, for example where companies compete for business or to achieve a particular goal; and at the level of the employee, for example where the application process for a job is intrinsically competitive.

In a world in which workers are increasingly expected to work long hours and weekends, to remain tethered to the company smartphone, and to put up with vanishing benefits, job security, overtime and paid time off—and to be grateful that they even have a job in a shrinking economy—compliance to doping or physical modification doesn’t sound like the science fiction scare tale it once might have. And the technologies, already well on their way to the office, undoubtedly appeal to companies as methods of getting a few more years of work from their staff before replacing them.

Like all potential transhuman futures, worker enhancement is something that will need deep insight, ethical consideration and advance planning to ensure it works for us, not against us.

Jason Louv edits the group futurist blog Ultraculture. @jasonlouv