Making better humans

Artificial performance enhancement research is gathering pace, so where should we draw the line?

In the 2012 film The Bourne Legacy, Jeremy Renner plays a ‘black ops’ government agent whose physical and mental capabilities are genetically and chemically enhanced. Nothing more than gripping cinema? Perhaps not. Research into methods of mechanical, chemical and electrical enhancement of human performance are gathering pace, and this is already raising some difficult questions for HR.

The future of human enhancement

The subject of human enhancement in its full, mind-bending gamut, was one of the subjects discussed at the recent PwC HR Leaders’ Symposium in Paris. Rohit Talwar, CEO of Fast Future Research and one of the leading thinkers in the field of human enhancement, presented a startling and intriguing case for businesses to begin to look at the effects that developments in artificial performance enhancement might have on employees, their employers and industry standards.

The need for formal policies

One particularly controversial avenue of human enhancement is chemical stimulus. We’re familiar with the use of caffeine to give us that extra boost to kick off or keep up with the day, but stronger drugs are already seeping into the veins of the business world. Talwar explains that a number of drugs intended for one purpose are being used for another: “It’s called off-label use. So, for example, Ritalin is for attention deficit disorder, Modafinil and Adderall are for sleep disorder and people are using them to enhance their cognitive functions, their concentration and their ability to stay up and work late.”

Significantly, the use of these drugs is increasingly prevalent with eager newcomers to the business world, suggesting a possibility that it may filter up through the ranks. This raises serious questions for employers, not least around whether they may need a formal policy for the use of performance-enhancing drugs – something that’s not even on the radar for most employers.

“Chemical stimulus is the big one – it’s where more and more research is going,” says Talwar. “There are chemicals that inhibit or unleash certain brain functions or improve memory. It’s opening up huge possibilities. The whole human enhancement issue is moving very fast. It’s no longer something that ‘could’ be out there, it’s happening.” The controversial question is whether performance-enhancing drugs could become a widely used and accepted method of increasing productivity.

Competing in emerging markets

Talwar says in the future, it’s the emerging markets that may be most tempted to consider a company strategy embracing these sorts of drugs. “You’ll see certain countries allow it because they want to gain competitive advantage,” he argues. “You’ll see countries compete on this in the same way they do on tax regimes today or the quality of their education or health systems. Why wouldn’t they compete on the range of enhancement science available? I think emerging economies, even if they have moral concerns, might see this as a way of accelerating and attracting investment,” he says.

Considering the ethical issues

“We know that this is something that organisations in many markets, and particularly in very aggressively competitive markets, are taking very seriously in their pursuit of competitive advantage,” says Laura Hinton, PwC Partner and Head of HR Management Consulting. “But it’s absolutely critical that employers both understand the science behind performance enhancement medication, and consider very carefully the ethical issues that they may need to address as part of their HR strategy.”

You can read the full version of this article in issue 28 of Hourglass magazine.