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Bio-hacking: going “beyond human”

What exactly does going “beyond human” mean? By upgrading ourselves beyond our basic, known capabilities, we anticipate a world in which the transformative power of technology – a force dramatically disrupting how we work, communicate and entertain ourselves – can enhance our ability to perform even the most basic tasks.

We have already seen the arrival of microchip implants, which allow workers to open doors, log on to terminals, and pay for goods. This is likely to be just the beginning of bio-enhancements that will enable employees to perform tasks easier, faster and with better results.

A near-future awaits in which smart implants, high-performance prosthetics and memory-enhancing components and ‘wearables’ will be needed for workers to keep pace with technology. There are several examples that suggest this “future” is closer than most would think.

Space-X entrepreneur Elon Musk has claimed that, “if humans want to continue to add value to the economy, they must augment their capabilities through a merger of biological intelligence and machine intelligence.” Musk advocates the adoption of mechanical or digital augmentations to improve the capacity of the human body.

 

Mobile monitoring

Biometric wearables, such as smartwatches, Google Glass 2.0, and health monitoring tech offer a glimpse into a future in which technology ensures that humankind will push its boundaries and potential. This is only likely to progress as wearable technology becomes influential in the world of work.

Wearable devices can be used to help employers monitor their workforce’s physiological habits and welfare – allowing them to ensure

that they are providing the necessary levels of support. For the past few years, insurance group Aetna has been rewarding its employees for getting a full night’s sleep.

Participants can use a wearable device which syncs to the company’s dedicated wellness platform and logs their sleep patterns – those sleeping over seven hours a night can earn small cash incentives. In 2016, close to 20,000 of the organisation’s employees were participating in the scheme.

While wearable tech uptake remains fairly low in today’s workplace, some companies do already advocate implantable tech. Wisconsin-based Three Square Market have trialled ‘chipping’ employees whereby a microchip no larger than a grain of rice is implanted into the hand. Employees can use the chip to open security doors, log on to computers and even purchase food and drinks.

Mixing mankind and machine

The notion that there are natural limits to our physical and intellectual abilities is progressively weakening. Even as societies continue struggle to meet the more basic and urgent health standards, there is gaining momentum behind the view that the human form – its physical-cognitive assets, its frailties, its limitations – can (and should) be augmented to fundamentally enhance performance.

BioStamp is a digital tattoo developed by US firm MC10 which is capable of capturing a wide range of data. Stamped directly onto the skin it collects data on body temperature, hydration levels, UV exposure and more. A further step is an ingestible sensor which communicates with the wearable device. Currently this technology is showing great potential in the healthcare industry, where quantifiable data about a patient’s wellbeing over time is invaluable. As with many of these technologies in the medical sector, we are only just beginning to realise its potential.

Author Eve Herold's book “Beyond Human” documents the development of new medical technologies that rely on a combination of computing, gene therapies and robotics. Herold arguing that they have the potential to dramatically transform our lives, allowing us to extend our life expectancy.

Catalan-British artist Neil Harbisson identifies as a “cyborg,” a pop sci-fi culture term that describes human with bodily augmentations. Cyborgs are now taking steps to defend their own rights and identity in a legal framework. This again indicates that the reality of working with people who have augmented their human capabilities by integrating machine parts is closer than most of us would think.

Better conditions – at what price?

Biometrics that can be gathered via wearables or implants, could allow companies to determine working conditions for employees based on their health. Some workers may perform better at a certain blood glucose level, or at different times of the day, or even at different ambient light levels. By gathering this information, companies will be able to tailor working conditions to support their employees to be at their very best. A new form of personalised efficiency may be developed by monitoring employee’s vital signs and providing the optimum environment for productivity.

Organisations that encourage, and even mandate the uptake of these types of technologies must tread carefully. Individuals are already highly attuned to the sensitivity of their personal information and will require robust guarantees about the security of any further information they are willing to disclose.

It may be necessary for some sections of the workforce to incorporate wearables or bio-enhancements to compete and collaborate with machines. With the advent of technologies such as machine learning and artificial intelligence, machines are making great strides and humans will need to keep up.

What are the key trends and how are they likely to impact the future of work? We explore the following future trends:


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