Expert fears over human enhancement


New drugs and medical implants that can make people work smarter, longer and in tougher conditions pose serious ethical questions, leading British scientists have suggested on foot of a study published yesterday.

Nearly one in eight American students already use cognitive-enhancing drugs for study, while nightwatchmen and gamekeepers could be fitted with retinal implants to improve their night vision.

The study, by four leading British scientific institutions, said the implications for workers will be “complex and potentially divisive”, perhaps, leading to tougher conditions.

Prof Barbara Sahakian of the University of Cambridge raised the prospect that some workers – night bus drivers, for example, or pilots – could be forced to take drugs to keep passengers safe. Then there is the question of who pays: governments or individuals.

“If a private individual pays then the rich will get cleverer,” said Prof Genevra Richardson of Kings College, London.

Research is already unde way to strengthen human bone and muscle tissues, said professor of Artificial Intelligence at University of Southampton Nigel Shadbolt. Seratonin, produced by humans to help regulate sleep and mood, has the potential to be used to improve moral judgment.


Scientists already know that Modafinil, a drug licensed to treat narcolepsy, makes younger people more alert.

However, much of it is sold online without prescription, raising dangers about the long-term health effects, said Prof Sahakian. Drugs, rather than implants offer the “greatest immediate challenge” since “they are cheap and are increasingly being used by healthy individuals”, noted the report.

Such substances could hinder efforts to create healthier working lives, with greater use of drugs to counter jet-lag among frequent fliers rather than encouraging more video-conferencing.

Scientific advances could help the 10 million people in the UK suffering some form of disability, including the six million reporting significant mobility problems. However, changes could force the disabled to accommodate themselves to working conditions, rather than adapting the work environment to meet their needs.

The report was jointly produced by the Royal Society, the British Academy, the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Academy of Medical Sciences.

Meanwhile, it said that more than 3,000 stem-cell clinical trials were under way globally, with one of the most advanced offering the prospect of “growing” new bones.

New muscle

Injuries suffered by troops in landmine explosions in Afghanistan has spurred the development of artificial limbs, particularly in the US, said Prof Shadbolt. Heart disease could be tackled by growing new myocardium muscle rather than using artificial or animal implants.

Scientists involved in the report believe state regulation will be needed to ensure that the public interest – rather than business interests – is best served. But they acknowledge that there will be calls for human enhancements to be permitted if other countries have gained an economic advantage by using them.