If I told you that you could be more productive at work, make better decisions and even enjoy the worst parts of your job more, would you be tempted?
Such are the promises of cognitive enhancing pharmaceuticals and technologies, many of which are increasingly being used by students and professionals to improve their performance at work.
But a new report by scientists and ethicists, which says that these developments will undoubtedly change the way we work in the future, raises concerns about the ethical and safety questions surrounding their use.
“There are many exciting prospects for enhancing production in the workplace,” says Barbara Sahakian, Professor of Clinical Neuropsychology at the University of Cambridge, and one of the members of the report working group, adding that now is the time to consider the issues and “find a way forward.”
The report is timely as a number of cogntive enhancing drugs are already being used. Modafinil, which was originally developed to treat sleep disorders such as narcolepsy, has gained a reputation as a brain boosting-drug which can improve concentration and memory, and even make work feel more enjoyable.
Sahakian says it’s impossible to know exactly how many people are using the drug off-label but the fact is that many more prescriptions are given out than there are people with the conditions the drug is supposed to treat. Surveys suggest that such cognitive enhancers are well known to the student population, who reportedly see them as a better alternative to caffeine, helping them to stay awake longer to revise or write essays, or keep them going during exams.
The US army has also been testing out cognitive enhancing drugs to keep soldiers alert for longer. Then there’s the realm of physical and technological enhancements that may bring other benefits. Cognitive enhancement through ‘brain-training’ video games has also been effective in studies, and could help older workers to keep up to speed with their younger colleagues, for instance. Other technological advances help improve hearing and vision, limb function, and more, which could all make people more productive.
The question is, how should these technologies be used? For a start, studies have shown that taking cognitive enhancing drugs reduces the number of accidents related to shift workers, and can also help surgeons do a better job, especially compared to caffeine which can cause their hands to shake. If it means saving lives, shouldn’t these advances be made compulsory by employers?
Many of the ethical concerns are not new, or reserved for developments in human enhancement, but where they are unique is that they will affect the workplace, said Jackie Leach Scully, an ethicist from Newcastle University, speaking at the report launch at the Science Media Centre in London. “What is special in the context of work is the competitive nature so it is likely that employees will be under big pressure to use enhancements to perform better,” she said, “but there might be lots of reasons why they don’t want to self enhance.” These include religious beliefs, safety concerns, or their own ethical reasons.
Leach Scully also raised the point that physiological enhancements could be of huge benefit to disabled people, who are already marginalised in the work place. The challenge is making sure the technologies are made available to those groups who are already underrepresented, rather then serving to increase that divide.
For many, the idea of human enhancement sits uncomfortably. For example are students who take these drugs cheating in their exams? Would this warrant drugs testing? Or should it be seen on a par with, say, drinking a cup of coffee? Some students may feel pressured into taking them simply to level the playing field. Just a 10 per cent increase in memory score can lead to a higher A-level or degree grade, says Sahakian, “so there’s a lot to play for.”
Of course, one of the biggest unknowns is the long term health effects. However, Modafinil doesn’t provide a high like other stimulant drugs, and does not seem to cause a physical dependence.
Economic pressures are another concern. Eventually, the benefits to workforce production of using these enhancement technologies and pharmaceuticals may be so great that as a competitive economy, we cannot ignore them.
What do you think? Have you ever taken cognitive enhancing drugs to help with your work or studies? Is it cheating, or are you excited about the future they could bring? Take our poll and let us know what you think.
Human enhancement and the future of work was put together by the Academy of Medical Sciences, the British Academy, the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Royal Society.