If you've streamed "Terminator: Dark Fate" or seen it in a theater, you know the world's latest savior from the future isn't your run-of-the-mill cyborg but a human soldier who has been physically enhanced. And while we consider this technology an outlier, what happens when augmentation becomes commonplace in your work environment?
While still the stuff of science fiction today, thought leaders say such human augmentation might be coming sooner than we think and could even become commonplace before long. Gartner, for example, predicts 30 percent of IT organizations will need bring your own enhancement (BYOE) policies as soon as 2023 to address a growing number of employees using augmentations on the job. The expectation is that by 2024, half of enterprises, scientists, and governments will support the adoption of an ethical framework for human augmentation by formalizing a global ethical impact assessment process.1
Now, before deciding this prediction is somewhat off the wall, consider this: Many of us already use some form of physical or mental augmentation today. We just don't think about it that way.
"We are already augmented," says Roberto Saracco, co-chair of the IEEE Digital Reality Initiative and author of the exhaustive report, "Augmented Machines and Augmented Humans Converging on Transhumanism." "In the future, the point is going to be more about how all of these technologies seamlessly integrate with one another."
For instance, Saracco notes smartwatches are already commonly used for exchanging emails or texts, checking calendars, and making phone calls. Cochlear implants inserted beneath the skin are amplifying sounds so people with hearing impairments do not have to suffer through the occasional social stigma associated with using hearing aids. Virtual and augmented reality (VR and AR) glasses are also showing up in factories, hospitals, and retail stores to enrich training, production, financial, and supply chain processes. Even fighter pilots rely on head-up displays (HUDs) for observing critical information such as speed, altitude, and direction without having to look down at their controls.
The rise of superworkers (and supersoldiers)
Such examples provide a glimpse into the future. At CES 2020, attendees were given another more powerful view (pun intended) when Sarcos Robotics, a highly touted startup from Salt Lake City, teamed with Delta Airlines to demonstrate a battery-powered full-body exoskeleton that it says will boost human performance and endurance while helping to prevent injury. The robotic suit will purportedly help humans lift up to 200 pounds repeatedly for up to eight hours at a time without strain or fatigue. Delta says it is considering the technology for everything from handling freight in warehouses to moving maintenance components about or lifting heavy machinery and parts for ground support equipment.
Sarcos CEO Ben Wolff says exoskeleton suits such as the Sarcos Guardian XO show that the momentum for physically augmenting humans at work is real and fully underway.
"The drivers are multifold," he explains. "They range from the economic, morale, and social issues associated with workplace injuries to the substantial economic impact of worker fatigue, labor shortages caused by an aging workforce, and fewer young people wanting to take on physically demanding jobs."
Not surprisingly, the U.S. Army is also interested in producing human beings who are better, stronger, and faster. In fact, a recent U.S. Department of Defense study concludes rapid advances in ear, eye, brain, and muscular enhancements could make cyborg warriors technically feasible by 2050.
"This [augmentation] technology is predicted to facilitate read/write capability between humans and machines and between humans through brain-to-brain interactions," an executive summary says. "These interactions would allow warfighters direct communication with unmanned and autonomous systems, as well as with other humans, to optimize command and control systems and operations."
Much of the research needed for these types of advances will likely be driven by civilian and private-sector demand, the study suggests. And this is where most current activity is occurring.
Getting the key information from the flood of data
GE Research, for instance, has 1,000 scientists at Forge Lab sites in New York and India who are looking into ways to blend augmentation with an array of other technologies to benefit its many business units.
SM Hasan, industrial wearables project leader at Forge Lab, says most of the research falls into two areas: devices to enhance productivity and those that improve worker safety. While much attention has been paid to the benefits of augmented technology for improving operational efficiency in industrial situations, Hasan thinks its potential safety implications could be even more important.
"Imagine people working in dangerous jobs, such as mining, firefighting, or the military," he says. "You would think they would benefit from wearables to help keep them safe at work. But when we did our homework, we didn't find the type of real-time data gathering needed for that."
This makes sense, Hasan explains, because there is so much data that would have to be collected, analyzed, and acted upon in a timely manner to head off workplace accidents.
"You need to be able to completely sense the environment," he says. "You have to know things like if there are any toxic gases nearby or what temperatures might be in the workplace and if employees are being affected. You want to have the necessary equipment to gauge if a worker's heart rate is rising or falling. And you need to understand what hazards might be in close proximity, like high-voltage power lines. Then you must have the ability to combine and process all that data in real time and analyze it. It's a complex problem, but that's one of the things we're targeting at the Forge."
Hasan says GE Research is trying to build an alert system that would not only advise employees and supervisors when something's gone wrong but also spot potential issues ahead of time.
"Because we are instrumenting workers with lots of different sensors collecting all kinds of data, we're thinking we could be monitoring environmental conditions for possible dangers," he says. "So, for example, if a firefighter is going into a burning building, we might be able to identify conditions leading up to a big explosion and potentially alert the firefighter to the pending threat before it happens, thus saving their life." There are already devices available to monitor these type of conditions but better integrating them with the user would make them significantly more effective.
Hasan notes the infrastructure behind these types of systems would have to include items employees wear, such as sensors embedded in watches. It would also require edge computing capabilities because many workers do their jobs remotely and safety issues cannot always wait for the time it would take to move critical data and analytics to server farms located half a world away.
"In addition to sending data to a cloud somewhere, GE Research also does all the processing on local edge servers. This is specifically useful for the customer who does not have remote cloud connectivity," Hasan says. "We're currently talking to a number of customers in an effort to get this whole safety system into pilot sometime soon."
Ben Verschueren, who oversees projects in the New York Forge Lab, says he believes workers would be generally comfortable using wearable devices on the job and have some familiarity with the technology. But he notes there are also legal and privacy issues to be considered, which is why GE Research is focusing on safety first.
"We all know data is king today, and there's a lot of value in companies being able to analyze it," he says. "But that also raises questions for employees, like, 'How much data am I comfortable sharing?' 'What do I own?' 'What data does my employer own?' and 'What information does the developer of the device own?' I think those kinds of complexities are going to be the biggest stumbling blocks in the adoption of augmented technology."
Another wrinkle in the spread of augmented technology could be the social and ethical mores involved with some employees having access to such enhancements while others do not. For example, imagine what might happen if price points for exoskeletons came down enough that some workers could afford to buy and use them on construction, waste management, and other blue-collar jobs. Or consider how office dynamics might change if some employees were able to improve their decision-making using artificial intelligence downloaded to wearable devices while others could not. Some ethicists worry these types of scenarios could give an unfair edge to workers who just happen to have a little more money. Of course, in many instances where there is a demonstratable advantage to these technologies, employers are likely to provide them to their working staff. But in industries where workers have traditionally provided their own tools and equipment, this is a potential issue.
Sheila Jasanoff, a professor of science and technology studies at Harvard Kennedy School and author of "The Ethics of Invention: Technology and the Human Future," thinks that how much people care will depend on particular workplace cultures.
"What you have to get down to is the fundamentals of what makes something seem unfair," she says. "Take typists, for example. Some people are just more dexterous than others. Or think about concert pianists. Some people are better at mastering the technicalities of piano playing, and we don't consider that an unfair advantage. People also recognize that it's OK to take your musical child to a Juilliard teacher if they have the talent and skill, and we don't typically consider that to be unfair, even if it confers a lifelong advantage. Right?"
Jasanoff points out there could also be instances in which, depending on the context of a situation, some employees fall victim to "tall poppy syndrome." This is where they end up being resented, isolated, or attacked because they seem to be flaunting technology others do not have. However, in general, if the technology doesn't violate strong office culture or social norms, Jasanoff doubts it will be a problem. It all depends on the context in which it's used, she says.
"If you come from a civic culture that says 'do not set yourself apart,' then those augmentation devices will be read differently in context from, say, the United States, where many of us race to the finish and try to become the best we can be by whatever means are lawfully available," Jasanoff says. "The ethical baseline depends on a set of convergent expectations about what the right behavior should be in each individual context."
Putting cyborgs in context
Neil Harbisson knows something about how people might react to augmentation technology in different contexts. A British-born, Catalan-raised contemporary artist who happens to be color blind, Harbisson is known for having an antenna implanted in his skull—and for being officially recognized as a cyborg by a government. The antenna allows him to perceive visible and invisible colors, including infrareds and ultraviolets, through audible vibrations in his skull. He says he can also "listen to colors" from space, images, videos, music, and phone calls coming seamlessly into his head through software and Internet connections. He considers the antenna to be a part of his body and an extension of his brain.
Harbisson, who now lives in both Japan and Taiwan, says people didn't initially know what to make of him and could even be uncomfortable around him at times.
"In 2004, when I first implanted the antenna, what I was doing was seen as very strange," he says. "I lost my job because I had the antenna, and it was really hard to find anyone willing to employ me. I was a waiter in a café, and the moment I got the antenna, they said I couldn't serve customers. If that happened today, I would definitely protest. But at the time, I just accepted it."
Harbisson says that, at the time, he looked at his augmentation in the context of contemporary art, and it was generally accepted in the art community, which understood it as experimental or avant-garde.
"But it would have been very strange for anyone in society at the time to see this as something normal," he says. "For many years, if I was walking down the street, people would think I was strange or doing something unnecessary."
Harbisson says the odd reactions eventually subsided as just about everyone else on the planet began holding devices up to their own heads: smartphones. Now, he thinks people can imagine the possibility that, someday, they too might become technologically augmented—or cyborgs.
"Depending on where you are around the world, it's becoming increasingly acceptable to combine biology with technology," he says. "And I think life will become much more exciting when we stop creating applications for mobile phones and start creating applications for our own body. And I think it's possible that, 10 or 20 years from now, many people will be merged with technology. If that happens, we need to ensure there won't be discrimination against cyborgs and that cyborgs do not discriminate against others for not being cyborgs. It must go both ways. We should all be treated as equals."
1Marty Resnick, Jamie Popkin, and Mark Driver, "Architecting Humans for Digital Transformation," Gartner and Maverick Research, June 12, 2019
Augmented humans: Lessons for leaders
- The human-technology interface is already here, be it smartwatches monitoring health or implanted technology improving physical capabilities.
- Augmentation can solve specific medical issues, such as hearing and vision loss, and has become commonplace. Advanced prosthetics are beginning to appear.
- Ethical considerations will need to stay at the leading edge of human augmentation.