Human Enhancement Technologies and the Workplace

WORKERS and their representatives have had to come to terms with many new technologies in the past 20 years. These were largely distinct bits of technology such as computer software and web applications. ‘Human enhancement technologies’ (HETs) are different in that they are either part of the user’s body or they directly affect its capabilities. They are technologies that ‘improve’ aspects of human functioning either by restoring a function or going above the current norm. Examples include cognitive enhancing drugs, bionic limbs and hearing aids.


HETs are very new, and there is little concrete evidence of how they are used currently. A recent report reviews what they are and some of the underlying science. The report is available on the Academy of Medical Science’s website.  It uses the term ‘improve’ without quotation marks, which is reasonable if we mean simply a specific human function. Whether altering such a function leads to improvements in the quality of working life is, as the report stresses, a different question.


Despite the novelty, it is possible to consider possible effects on workers. Some of these, such as restored hearing, are likely to be broadly welcomed. But the dangers of drugs that alter mental capabilities are also evident. For example, those that permit workers to concentrate for longer periods of time could lead to pressures to lengthen working hours or increase the use of shift work.


The report suggests two ways to think about HETs. The first is whether they affect physical or mental functioning. Other things being equal, improved physical functioning may raise fewer issues than cognitive enhancers. The improved functioning of a limb is easier to contemplate than drugs that may aim to raise intelligence. The second dimension concerns restoration versus enhancement. The former is more likely to be socially acceptable than the latter.


Considering where on these two dimensions an HET lies is a first step for workers faced with a new technology at work. The second step draws on experience and research over many years: if a technology is imposed with little consultation or employee involvement, the dangers of negative effects are greatest. This is the lesson from innovations including lean production in manufacturing and call centre technology in services. Where workers are not engaged, they tend to be distanced from the technology which is perceived as alien.


There are two aspects of engagement. The first concerns the humanization of work, for example using a technology to make work easier. This can include insisting on appropriate training to understand the technology. The second aspect is improving the potential of the technology. Management does not know all the answers, and there are many ways in which workers can identify opportunities of which managers are not aware. This lesson goes back at least as far as ‘socio-technical’ experiments in the 1950s, which found that workers could take a technology and mould it to suit the ways in which they shared work among themselves. The lesson remains as valid as ever.


HETs are new and untried, and it is impossible to guess how extensive their effects will be. They have, however, developed rapidly, and further advance seems likely. How to cope with them turns on some much older lessons of understanding the potential and engaging in a critical dialogue with managements to draw out the best and limit the worst aspects.


For for on Future of Work issues read our publication on this subject.



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