Concern over 'souped up' human race

By Michelle Roberts
Health editor, BBC News online

image captionMedicine and technology can enhance the way our minds function, but at what cost?

A race of humans who can work without tiring and recall every conversation they've ever had may sound like science fiction, but experts say the research field of human enhancement is moving so fast that such concepts are a tangible reality that we must prepare for.

People already have access to potent drugs, originally made for dementia patients and hyperactive children, that boost mental performance and wakefulness.

Within 15 years, experts predict that we will have small devices capable of recording our entire life experience as a continuous video feed - a life log that we can reference when our own memory fails.

Advances in bionics and engineering will mean we could all boast enhanced night vision allowing us to see clearly in the dark.

While it may be easy to count the potential gains, experts are warning that these advances will come at a significant cost - and one which is not just financial.

Potential harm

Four professional bodies - the Academy of Medical Sciences, the British Academy, the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Royal Society - say that while human enhancement technologies might improve our performance and aid society, their use raise serious ethical, philosophical, regulatory and economic issues.

In a joint report, they warn that there is an "immediate need" for debate around the potential harms.

Chairwoman of the report's steering committee Prof Genevra Richardson said: "There are a range of technologies in development and in some cases already in use that have the potential to transform our workplaces - for better or for worse."

There may be an argument for lorry drivers, surgeons and airline pilots to use enhancing drugs to avoid tiredness, for example.

But, in the future, is there a danger that employers and insurers will make this use mandatory, the committee asks.


As our population ages, it is accepted that we will all be expected to work further into old age.

Human enhancement could enable older workers to keep pace with younger colleagues.

But there is also the risk that those who fail to join the technological elite would be sidelined as dinosaurs, says Prof Jackie Leach Scully, professor of social ethics at Newcastle University's Policy, Ethics & Life Sciences Research Centre.

Several surveys reveal that many students now use brain-enhancing "smart" pills to help boost their exam grades, which raises the question about whether colleges and universities should insist candidates are "clean" in the same way that Olympic athletes have to prove they are drug-free to compete.

Many people buy them over the internet, which is risky because they don't know what they're getting.

And we know little about their long-term effects on healthy, young brains.

Dr Robin Lovell-Badge, of the Medical Research Council and who chaired one of the workshop sessions that formulated the report, said: "It was clear from discussions that cognitive-enhancing drugs present the greatest immediate challenge for regulators and other policymakers.

"They are simple to take, already available without prescription, and are increasingly being used by healthy individuals.

"However, other forms of enhancement, including physical methods, will follow. Some were on show at the Paralympics, some are being explored by the military and others may become a serious option in the clinic in the not too distant future.

"It is good to see and to be excited by many of these developments, but there must be an equally watchful eye and care taken to ensure that the workforce can capitalise on the benefits, but not suffer the harms that could come about by their inappropriate use."

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