To work in the future, will you need drugs and bionics?

Girard Dorney


written on August 30, 2017

Are performance enhancing drugs and bionics going to be prerequisites for the employees of the future? HRM takes a cold, hard look.

It’s smart business, and bad science, for media companies to report technological speculation as solid predictions, and statistical blips as facts of life. Recently this appears to be happening in the realm of workplace performance enhancement.

A PwC paper from earlier this year, Workforce of the future, appears to be the catalyst for some of it. A smatter of reports based on it went bold, with headlines like: “the extreme lengths we’ll have to go to in the workplace of 2030” and “the pill-popping future of work looks terrifying.”

Compare this with what the paper actually had to say, which is that in 13 years’ time, 70 per cent of the people surveyed “would consider using treatments to enhance their brain and body if this improved employment prospects in the future”. Hardly groundbreaking stuff.

So let’s put hype aside, and look at what we actually know about drugs and technological neural enhancers in the future of work.

Drugs, doping and nootropics

The PwC paper contains a speculative news article, from the year 2030, about a new drug that improves workplace performance by 10 per cent. But what do those drugs look like now?

One of the big trends from Silicon Valley is nootropics, from the Greek words for “mind” and “bending”. It is technically about any substance that improves cognition from caffeine to ritalin, but is typically used to refer to substances with low toxicity. It can also involve a regimen of such drugs.

The Washington Post reported on a man who took a “daily cocktail” of “vitamins, minerals, muscle-building compounds, some little-known research drugs and a microdose of LSD.” And there have also been reports of dinners where people open up boxes of nootropics before the first course.

But do they work?

While there is some evidence for some of the drugs, there is nothing near to an irrefutable study suggesting we should all start a nootropic diet. Piracetam for instance, the drug first synthesised by the Romanian scientist who coined the term “nootropic”, has been widely researched and shown to have some cognitive benefits. But we still don’t fully understand its mechanism of action, and much of the research around it has also come into question.

A study of chess players on caffeine, modafinil, methylphenidate, or a placebo found a slight improvement in the chances of winning for those on stimulants. But it also meant that players who were bad with time management saw this tendency worsened.

“The hype around efficacy far exceeds available evidence,” researcher and advisor to pharmaceutical manufacturers Murali Doraiswamy told the Washington Post. He explained that for younger users, “it’s a zero-sum game. That’s because when you up one circuit in the brain, you’re probably impairing another system.”

At least some of the hype around nootropics has nothing to do with results, and everything to do with social pressures. The workers of Silicon Valley are smart (if not wise) and know there’s little evidence many of their treatments are effective. But the desire to get ahead is a tremendous motivator. If the proposition is “this might help, and it probably won’t harm” that’s a bet many are willing to make.

It feels like all of this talk could use a cold splash of water. Speaking of: the nootropic crowd are also known to try other techniques to achieve maximum cognition – namely meditation, intermittent fasting and (you guessed it) cold-water plunges.

So far there are no reports on whether anyone has tried slapping themselves on the forehead and yelling, “be smarter!”

Technological neural enhancers

You only need to read an article about AI – or look at the device you’re reading this on – to know the current world of work is absolutely plugged-in. But what about the next stage?

Earlier this year the CEO of SpaceX and Tesla, Elon Musk launched a new company called Neuralink, the purpose of which is to merge AI and human minds. As HRM has reported on recently, Musk is concerned about the emergence of an artificial-superintelligence. He believes to remain relevant, our species will require such a merger.

Currently though, there are huge surgical risks and hurdles, and too many unknowns in general to really have any idea of what this might one day be like. The closest we’ve come seems to be in the world of medicine, where things like amputees being to be able to control robot arms and legs with their thoughts has been a reality for a few years now.

But what’s available currently for employees?

Well there’s wearable technology but that’s more for gathering data on productivity than a direct driver of it. There have also been reports of offices having “chip parties”. This is where staff voluntarily implant microchips that allow them to log into computers and open doors with a wave of their hands.

Forgive a little scepticism, but is this really much more sophisticated than sticky taping the office key to your index finger?

There is a high chance that one or several of these things will evolve into a new way of life for the working world. Computers and the web were once scoffed at as impractical, and they’re now at the centre of everything. But there’s a difference between preparing for the future, and thinking you know what it holds.

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