The Ethics Of Human Enhancement

The British Academy have just released a report on Human Enhancement and The Future of Work headlined by the BBC as “Concern over ‘Souped up’ human race”.

A race of humans who can work without tiring and recall every conversation they’ve ever had may sound like science fiction, but experts say the research field of human enhancement is moving so fast that such concepts are a tangible reality that we must prepare for.

The reason for the concern?  The combined academic panel (from the Academy of Medical Science, the British Academy, the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Royal Society) are focusing on cognition-enhancing drugs as an immediate and pressing issue for us all. Whilst the report talks about the workplace, performance enhancers are already becoming common place on university campuses.

Obviously, Humans have been using chemical stimulants to enhance performance for thousands of years. Like millions of others I need a good jolt of decent tasting caffeine to get me going in the morning. However, the recent rise in the non-prescribed use of substances like Ritalin as a study aid up’s the ante considerably – and it’s just the start.

In many ways, popping a pill is more insidious than the more scifi-esque possibilities of mechanical human augmentation (such as bio-implanted screens) as the effects are internal and hard to immediately detect. However they do show up very clearly on an MRI scan. Caffeine accentuates activity in specific areas of the brain. However, drugs like Ritalin not only turn up certain brain activity, they also turn off brain activity elsewhere.

Consumption creates the ability to focus, non-stop and without distraction, for roughly four hours per pill – and therefore do better by, for example, gaining a better grade. Naturally, if an equally capable fellow student is suddenly attaining better grades through taking a performance enhancer, it becomes mightily tempting for classmates to follow them.

 A Cambridge University Professor of Psychology reported this week that 10% of students now admit to taking cognitive enhancing drugs (implying the actual number is higher) and has called for Universities to discourage use by screening students.

This draws comparison with another professional activity.  Sports people are routinely screened for use of performance enhancing substances. As has been highlighted by the latest Lance Armstrong revelations, and this summers Pistorius Para-Olympic controversy, sports governing bodies perceive performance enhancing technology as creating an unfair advantage i.e. cheating. Abusers are banned from the sport, often for life.

As a society this creates a contradiction.  Should physical performance enhancing drugs be banned for professional athletes but cognitive performance enhancers for our “cerebral muscle” be OK for trainee and qualified professionals? Is it OK for doctors, judges, bankers and teachers to use them?  How about the police or air traffic control? 

As with professional athletes there’s also a danger that, for those who can obtain them, establishing early habitual and often addictive use of performance enhancing drugs may become a learned and entrenched behavior across a career: “Have a big report due in the morning? Take a legal amphetamine”.  

Unlike unprofessional athletes, there are likely to be unknown long-term effects of cognitive enhancers which also need to be considered. The FDA drug approval mechanism measures benefits and side-effects over years, not decades. We have no way of knowing what happens to our long term brain chemistry if psychotropic drugs have been taken habitually for extended periods of time, starting when the brain is still developing. It might be OK, it might not. We simply don’t know.

Cognitive enhancement research will grow rapidly in the coming decade as pharmaceutical companies follow the money by developing more sophisticated and specifically targeted drugs. It’s also something that will eventually impact all of us.

A simple example: what should I do in a few years time when my kids demand Ritalin (or something similar) to help them keep up with their classmates at school?  What would you do?

The report, Human Enhancement and the Future of Work, can be downloaded here.