It is common in science fiction to find humans whose abilities have been augmented by implants or chemicals. The 1970’s TV show The Six Million Dollar Man was based on the premise that robotic parts could be grafted onto a man to make him superhuman. In Captain America a special drug gave a weakling super strength, perhaps more interestingly, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll, in an ill-fated attempt to separate good character from evil impulses, created a drug that temporarily transformed him into the nasty Mr. Hyde. These science fiction scenarios are coming to life; we seen it most famously in the case of Lance Armstrong who gained superhuman endurance through the use of performance enhancing drugs.
Augmented humans will become relevant for HR if the prevalence and impact of chemicals or implants increase significantly—as has happened in professional sports. As there is every reason to think this will happen, we should think through how to react.
Many technologies enhance human performance. A pair of binoculars that enhances vision is seen as an non-issue; but if someone was implanted with a telescopic eye, that would be considered bizarre. The discussion of augmented humans gets emotional because it challenges the nature of what it is to be human. This emotional reaction, a kind of revulsion, can be a barrier to thinking clearly about the topic.
In sports, which has been dealing with performance enhancing drugs for many years, the drugs are banned. That ban can be justified simply on the basis of fairness. However, while it would ruin a race if one contestant were augmented, the same is not true of accountants. The sports solution of simply banning augmentation won’t work in the business world.
The Damage Done
There is only one primary issue with regards to augmentation and that is the damage done. If performance enhancing drugs or implants damage the individual, then society and organizations will want to minimize that damage.
However, we can be sure actual events will always play out as a trade-off of benefit versus damage, not a strict program of limiting damage. Sending workers into coal mines has far more deleterious effects than do most of the imagined performance enhancing drugs, but we did it anyway. Businesses could not resist the profits of coal mining, and there were always worker to be found who felt there was no better alternative to working in the mine. Society responded by forcing organizations to adopt measures that minimize the health risks.
What we need to confront is that if performance enhancements are any good, if they make people smarter, stronger, faster, or less tired then they are bound to be used. We also need to recognize that organizations will directly or indirectly pressure people to become augmented. Movie stars may already feel compelled to get cosmetic surgery. Perhaps one day anyone on the late shift will be required to take drugs to keep them awake; or to find work, assembly line workers may feel compelled to get implants that make their eyes sharper and fingers more nimble.
Most individuals are not very good at making the trade-off between long-term health costs and short-term earnings benefits. Individuals are often not in a sufficiently powerful position to resist pressure take potentially dangerous actions to get a job. Societies often will not know the long-term damage augmentation may do until decades after a technology is introduced making it difficult to regulate.
It is predictable that we will see a wide range of human augmentation, that some of the augmentation will have serious side effects, and that we will have to struggle as a society to reap the benefits while minimizing the damage.
What sorts of enhancements are likely?
We can have fun imaging all sorts of enhancements to human, here are a few:
Physical improvement – Labourers, fire fighters and soldiers will want to be stronger and have higher endurance. Executives may want to be taller. Surgeons will want improved fine motor control.
Cognitive improvement – Knowledge workers will want improved attention, less fatigue, and perhaps improved mental acuity.
Improved senses – As we find ways to use implants to improve the senses, perhaps an ability to see further or to see other parts of the spectrum, it seems inevitable that someone will find a use for them. A few hobbyists are already implanting magnets into their fingers to give them the ability to sense magnetic fields.
Computer interfaces – The most important implants may be one that link the brain more closely to the internet. Google glass creates a wearable link to the internet; an implant is just the next step. Perhaps the comforting side of contemplating this future is the recognition that we are already in its midst. We give children drugs to combat attention deficits, use caffeine to keep us alert, use laser surgery to improve vision, and replace worn bone joints with metal ones. The evolution of augmented humans will simply multiply the promise and perils we already face.
What sorts of enhancements are likely?
It can be a challenge to go from interesting topics like human augmentation to knowing what we actually should do. The most obvious starting point is to have thought through a policy; and it will mainly be a health and safety policy. The policy should focus on damage an augmentation might do to a person or safety risks it creates. It might also be good to add that an employee will never be compelled to use any kind of augmentation—although that may be promising too much; it could become impossible for a bond trader to compete without performance enhancing drugs or flight attendants to work without something to counter jet lag.
Augmentation is here, it is growing, and it will become an issue in business just as it is in sports. What HR can do is be clear minded about the issue and ensure everyone focuses on the trade-off of enhanced performance versus health in a proactive and thoughtful way.