Superhuman workplace: Is it a boon or bane?
Superhuman workplace: Is it a boon or bane?
Academics from Britain’s leading institutions say attention needs to be focused on the consequences of technology which may one day allow — or compel — humans to work better, longer and harder. Here’s their list of upgrades that might make their way to campuses and cubicles in the next decade: Barbara Sahakian, a Cambridge neuropsychology professor, cited research suggesting that 16 percent of US students already use “cognitive enhancers” such as Ritalin to help them handle their course loads. Pilots have long used amphetamines to stay alert. And at least one study has suggested that the drug modafinil could help reduce the number of accidents experienced by shift workers.
But bioethicist Jackie Leach Scully of northern England’s Newcastle University worries that the use of such drugs might focus on worker productivity over personal well-being.
“Being more alert for longer doesn’t mean that you’ll be less stressed by the job,” she said. “It means that you’ll be exposed to that stress for longer and be more awake while doing it.”
The researchers also noted so-called “life-logging” devices like Nike Inc.’s distance-tracking shoes or wearable computers such as the eyeglasses being developed by Google Inc. The shoes can record your every step; the eyeglasses everything you see. Nigel Shadbolt, an expert in artificial Intelligence at southern England’s University of Southampton, said such devices were as little as 15 years away from being able to record every sight, noise and movement over an entire human life.
So do you accept if your boss gives you one? “What does that mean for employee accountability?” Shadbolt asked.
The report also noted bionic limbs like the one used this week by amputee Zac Vawter to climb Chicago’s Willis Tower or exoskeletons like the one used earlier this year by partially paralyzed London Marathon participant Claire Lomas. It also touched on the development of therapies aimed at sharpening eyesight or cochlear implants meant to enhance hearing. Scully said any technology that could help disabled people re-enter the workforce should be welcomed but society needs to keep an eye out for unintended consequences.
“One of the things that we know about technology hitting society is that most of the consequences were not predicted ahead of time and a lot of things that we worry about ahead of time turn out not to be problems at all,” she said. “We have very little idea of how these technologies will pan out.”
The report was drawn up by scientists from The Academy of Medical Sciences, the British Academy, the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Royal Society.
“We’re not talking science fiction here,” said Genevra Richardson, the King’s College law professor who oversaw the report. “These technologies could influence our ability to learn or perform tasks, they could influence our motivation, they could enable us to work in more extreme conditions or in old age, or they could facilitate our return to work after illness or disability .... Their use at work also raises serious ethical, political and economic questions.”
Scully said workers may come under pressure to try a new memory-boosting drug or buy the latest wearable computer.
“In the context of a highly pressurized work environment, how free is the choice not to adopt such technologies?” she said.
Union representatives appeared taken aback by some of the experts’ predictions. One expressed particular disquiet at the possibility raised by the report that long-distance truck drivers might be asked to take alertness drugs for safety reasons.
“We would be very, very against anything like that,” said James Bower, a spokesman for Britain’s United Road Transport Union. “We can’t have a situation where a driver is told by his boss that he needs to put something in his body.”
What We Are Reading Today: Millions, Billions, Zillions by Brian W. Kernighan
- Numbers are often intimidating, confusing, and even deliberately deceptive
- Misunderstanding numbers can have serious consequences
Numbers are often intimidating, confusing, and even deliberately deceptive— especially when they are really big. The media loves to report on millions, billions, and trillions, but frequently makes basic mistakes or presents such numbers in misleading ways.
And misunderstanding numbers can have serious consequences, since they can deceive us in many of our most important decisions, including how to vote, what to buy, and whether to make a financial investment. In this short, accessible, enlightening, and entertaining book, leading computer scientist Brian Kernighan teaches anyone — even diehard math-phobes — how to demystify the numbers that assault us every day.
With examples drawn from a rich variety of sources, including journalism, advertising, and politics, Kernighan demonstrates how numbers can mislead and misrepresent. In chapters covering big numbers, units, dimensions, and more, he lays bare everything from deceptive graphs to speciously precise numbers. And he shows how anyone — using a few basic ideas and lots of shortcuts — can easily learn to recognize common mistakes, determine whether numbers are credible, and make their own sensible estimates when needed.
Giving you the simple tools you need to avoid being fooled by dubious numbers, Millions, Billions, Zillions is an essential survival guide for a world drowning in big — and often bad — data.
Brian W. Kernighan is professor of computer science at Princeton University. His many books include Understanding the Digital World: What You Need to Know about Computers, the Internet, Privacy, and Security (Princeton). He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.