advancing technology and diversity

Technology and Diversity: Human Augmentation Technology in the Workplace

New Technologies Create New Diversity Issues for Employers and Employees

In the last few years, cyborgs and augmented humans have gone from being futuristic sci-fi creatures that we only see in movies–from  Dr. No to Robocop—to a plausible and increasingly visible part of the social and commercial landscape. From smartphones to advanced prosthetics, new technologies hold the promise of creating greater human diversity. This is likely to compel employers to refine their understanding of “diversity” in the workplace.

Augmented humans create new legal, ethical and practical issues. They produce novel challenges for government policymakers, military strategists, corporate employers, legal and health care systems, and technology firms, not to mention the rest of us. 

As a result, the concept of diversity in the workplace will soon go beyond sex, age, gender, race and ethnicity, to include different kinds of augmentation and enhancement. Some lie in the distant future, but others, such as prosthetics and exoskeletons, are already here. When those enhancements are connected wirelessly to the internet or a cloud computer, they produce additional security and safety challenges. 

What is a Cyborg or Augmented Human?

Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline coined the term cyborg in 1960 in the Astronautics journal. It is a compound of the word “cybernetic” and organism.” Cybernetics was a new field then and studied how automatic systems communicated and sustained themselves. The concept of a cyborg contained the idea that machines and humans could exist in a seamless relationship.

Since then, driven by the advances in machine learning and robotics, the relentlessness of human curiosity and the promise of optimizing the human body or providing it relief from diseases, our “cyborgization” has progressed into more advanced and unknown territory. 

To address disease: Roboticist and artificial intelligence expert Peter Scott-Morgan, on finding out in 2016 he had ALS (also called Lou Gehrig’s disease), a degenerative, fatal disease that would incapacitate him entirely, decided that instead of giving in to the disease, he would replace his failing digestive system, ability to breathe, ability to speak, and ability to show expression in his face with technological replacements that could do the work for him. 

To be more efficient: Wouldn’t it be nice to be entirely relieved of having to remember passwords or carry keys, ever? 

The VivoKey company promises “effortless identity” with “just a wave of your hand” through a tiny cryptobionic implant implanted in the webby space between your thumb and index finger. The chip communicates through near-field communication with your smartphone and can be programmed to provide passwords, electronic locks, and I.D. badges. The company says it is working with transit companies and that banking and payment systems are coming soon. 

For fun: Not everyone connecting themselves to machines is doing it to solve a problem. Rich Lee had an amplifier implanted in his ear, solving the tiresome bother of having to keep track of your earphones. 

Others have implanted magnets in their genitals and created a host of toys and concepts to enhance their sexual experience. (You can read more in this 2018 CNET article; note that it has explicit language.)

These fascinating and noteworthy examples can drive home how far the technologies and possibilities have brought us. Still, they can also blind us to the more simple ways our slow cyborgization creates new issues.

Humans are Already Augmented

In 2014, Benjamin Wittes and Jane Chong argued in a Brookings Institution report, Our Cyborg Future, that society was already entering the realm of cyborg law. Citing Columbia Law professor Tim Wu, they observe that we are super-empowered due to the machines we carry on our bodies all day. Smartphones and Fitbits may not be embedded, but the intensity with which we rely on them is making the distinction almost meaningless.

This quasi-integration between human and machine poses a legal and conceptual challenge because humans have rights, but machines currently do not. 

The law views us as separate from our machines, even when we may not see ourselves that way.

 Wittes and Chong relate the case of a person with quadriplegia whose mobility assistance device was destroyed by an airline. Even though the man then spent eleven months bedridden without the device, the airline claimed that they had only damaged his property and not the man himself. They paid little in damages as a result.

Which forms of technology will advance human diversity at work?

Some forms of augmentation are already widely accepted. We have already incorporated them into our understanding of ourselves and what we collectively perceive as “ability” and “disability. Hearing aids and contact lenses, for example, improve senses and bring them into a normal range of ability. Smartphones, however, go further. They extend us and give us new skills. With a smartphone in hand, you have access to vastly more information and knowledge than your brain can hold, for example.  

While augmentation is not new, novel integrations of the human body and connected machines or advanced prosthetics can create new possibilities that may be especially useful in some workplaces. 

Consider:

(1) Specialized limb prosthetics: Different jobs require different ways of using our limbs. For people who have suffered the loss of a limb, specialized prosthetic limbs offer an opportunity to customize their bodies for their jobs. 

(2) Exoskeletons: These “wearable robotics,” are a promising area of enhancement for jobs requiring physical stamina and movement. The author of the Exoskeleton Report, Bobby Marinov, divides exoskeletons into six types: 

  • Tool holding, 
  •  “Chairless chairs” 
  • Back support
  • Powered gloves
  • Full-body power suits, 
  • Supernumerary robotics that can provide a second pair of hands

Marinov identifies three advantages of using exoskeletons in the workplace. They can reduce workplace injuries, which is good for workers and reduces costs and worker compensation lawsuits.

Augmenting the body and reduce worker fatigue and help make them more productive. Exoskeletons, finally, can keep older workers in the workplace for a more extended period. 

These apparent advantages for both employers and employees also evolve the ways we think about work and people. As employers begin to adopt augmentation practices, they should also think about how to continue to emphasize the human experience and meaning of work.

(3) Brain-computer interfaces. 

Brain-computer interfaces (BCI) translate the brain’s electrical signals into communication either with parts of the body or other machines. A BCI uses the electrical signals that our brains generate when we think to send information to prosthetic limbs or beyond the body into another device (which can translate it into communication we can understand, like words and pictures).  

These signals can be captured non-invasively through electrodes placed on the scalp or through implanted electrodes on the brain itself. Much of the work in this area is in a research stage, and what has been developed is primarily for treat mental health and physical disorders.

Entrepreneur Elon Musk’s Neuralink project is a well-known example of a brain-computer interface. Although militaries are interested in using BCIs, not everyone else knows what to do with these yet. Still, there is little doubt that because, as one research team says, BCI “has the potential to revolutionize communication.” 

Privacy & Surveillance – Two Sides of a Critical Issue for Employers with “Connected” Employees

The more closely bound we are with machines that generate data and meta-data about us, the more vulnerable we are to bad actors who might want to capture our information for their purposes. We also become more easily surveilled, whether by the government or by employers. Finally, we can also fall prey to glitches and mistakes in the networks that connect us to servers and clouds.

This well-recognized issue does not have a neat solution, nor can privacy be regulated into existence through policy; the vulnerabilities are an inherent part of systems connected to the internet or private networks. 

Medical devices offer a unique challenge. They may be engaged in preserving the life of the person using them.

Additionally, the medical arena has specific privacy issues related to health data. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration website acknowledges this with explicit warnings that: “Threats and vulnerabilities cannot be eliminated; therefore, reducing cybersecurity risks is especially challenging. The health care environment is complex, and manufacturers, hospitals, and facilities must work together to manage cybersecurity risks.”

While some devices’ exotic qualities can make concerns seem whimsical right now, they are real possibilities. It can be instructive to listen to those who can imagine the potential consequences of more potent forms of cyborgization. Ross Anderson, an Engineering Security professor at Edinburgh University, offers this scenario as food for thought, recognizing that remote-controlled devices are coming.

In the case of remotely controlled devices: 

“It would clearly be convenient for the police to immobilize wanted persons remotely; will they be allowed to? What about the patient who’s forgotten to pay the software license renewal on her pacemaker? On the memory prosthesis embedded in her skull? And what if some of the space in the prosthesis is used by an MP3 player – if she cancels her music subscription, will the DRM service delete the associated memories? If so, will the medical ethics people prevail and ensure the amnesia is gentle, or will the marketing people get the upper hand and leave her with an unbearable sense of loss?”

Safety Issues related to Human Augmentation

Like other digital technology, a rising number of devices creates a situation of ever greater complexity. When a glitch occurs in your laptop, it can be a huge pain. When it appears in your pacemaker, it might be a safety issue. 

In the same vein, issues that are challenging in a regular situation become intensely complex concerning embedded devices. How will software upgrades be conducted safely? How will a rising number of devices be made interoperable, if necessary?

Anderson observes that values also come into play as different institutions have different ideas about what constitutes safe. What Facebook thinks is safe and what your heart surgeon does might be worlds away from each other. 

“We can also expect that, as information security mechanisms support goals that benefit different stakeholders – such as safety, privacy, cost control, and lock-in – they will end up serving more than one master. The patient will ask: ‘Is this a safety system which helps me, or a control system which restricts me?’ The resulting conflicts of interest may stress the relationships between patients, physicians, vendors, insurers and regulators.” 

Augmentation Technology and Diversity: Human Capital Considerations

Many people are concerned that enhancing our abilities using machines will shift the balance of what today we call “ability.” 

Ethicists worry that existing divisions between the haves and have-nots will be exacerbated by the rise of augmented humans. Will we end up with a new underclass of people who do not have enhancement available to them and suffer a similar lack of access to work and other opportunities?

Today, we might think of disability, ability and superability as a continuum that goes from “less” to “more.” Some people can’t hold a tune, others are alright as long as they stick to singing Happy Birthday, and a few of us are opera singers and rock stars.

Human augmentation confuses that continuum. People viewed as disabled today may be the super-abled among us tomorrow. Think of the runner with paraplegia. Wearing specially designed prosthetic legs, she is a faster and more efficient runner than a talented but unenhanced competitor.

Woodrow Barfield, the author of Cyber-Humans: Our Future with Machines, has observed that:

“As these cyborg technologies become more advanced, they will approach and then surpass ordinary human function, raising the prospects of enhancing human capabilities well beyond the current baseline standard; this many lead society to view the healthy, yet unenhanced human as disabled. Therefore, in the cyborg future, the disabled, equipped with cyborg technology, may prove more abled, and average abilities could become almost akin to defects in need of elimination.” 

The question of how to evaluate employees’ capabilities and maintain equal opportunity is challenging for human resources executives and also for society at large. As Wittes and Chang point out, the line between ability and disability isn’t as solid as we might think: “It turns on how society chooses to define what constitutes health and what constitutes deficiency.”

Instead of viewing this blurriness as a problem, employers might want to view it as an opportunity to create even better workplaces. Instead of thinking about augmentation technology only in terms of the complications it will cause, leaders might also discover new ways to define ability across a wide spectrum of human attributes and capabilities. Augmentation technology can become a prompt for greater diversity and inclusion.

Advancing Technology Leads to a Rise in Diversity, Self-Expression, Individualism

As workplaces have become less hierarchical and more diverse, employers have let workers show more personal expression in their appearance. Human augmentation lets people manipulate their appearance in new ways. Employers will have to ask themselves where new lines of permissibility lie and consider new forms of appearance as they relate to corporate values. This is especially the case for those whose roles bring them into contact with customers or the general public. 

Today, biohackers are already pushing this limit. Biohackers, also called grinders, are people who seek to optimize their own bodies, sometimes through self-augmentation.

(A few have become quasi-famous ‘poster children for the concept. Neil Harbisson is often called the world’s first cyborg. He implanted an antenna to help him “hear” colors that he cannot see because of congenital color-blindness. His TED talk has had over 3 million views.)

Another group called transhumanists seek morphological freedom.

For those who theorize about cyborgs, people’s potential to self-create the bodies they want sounds liberating. Gennady Stolyarov, who heads the U.S. Transhumanist Party, suggests that instead of the vision of an increasingly homogenous and ‘perfected’ human race:

 “Different people would choose to augment themselves in different ways, stretching their abilities in different directions. We will not see a monolithic hierarchy of some augmented humans at the top, while the non-augmented humans get relegated to the bottom,” he reasons. “Rather, widespread acceptance of emerging technologies would create a future where a thousand augmented flowers will bloom.”

If you are an employer, this degree of human diversity may seem fanciful or something that will only occur in the distant future. They may be closer than you think, however. A generation ago, the premise that transgender issues would be a serious matter for human resources might have seemed equally distant. Today, of course, how each organization will address transgender issues touches regulatory compliance, hiring and company culture. In the same vein, there is no question that human diversity resulting from advanced technology will expand. But the transition will be slow. The question is, how prepared will you be?

Would you like to begin a discussion about technology and the future of human and workplace diversity? Get in touch.