Doping in the workplace, the new normal?

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Doping in the workplace, the new normal?

Neuroethicist Nicole Vincent explores if and when it is a good idea to use medicine or technology to do a better job.

Surgeons who operate faultlessly, pilots who never doze off, soldiers always fit and focused. Wouldn't the world be a safer place if certain professions popped a pill every now and then to ensure they perform better in their jobs? On the eve of an international conference on this subject in Delft, Nicole Vincent, who initiated a research project in NWO's Responsible innovation research programme, explains her views. The Polish-born Australian holds an associate professorship in philosophy, law and neuroscience at Georgia State University in Atlanta and as a part-time researcher at Delft University of Technology leads a transnational team of researchers in Delft and Oxford.

The subject of the team's Responsible Innovation research is cognitive enhancement: using medication or neurotechnologies not to heal the minds of the unwell, but to make the minds of healthy people better than good, perhaps even exceptional. Cognitive enhancement, if it lives up to its promise, will enable us to do a better job, get better grades, be more robust human beings. But is this really a recipe for a happier society? In Vincent’s view the answer is far from clear, and that is precisely why she urges law makers and professional groups to seize the initiative and not lean back and see how things develop.

Did you know? A German-Australian study found that a non-invasive form of brain stimulation significantly improves language learning skills.

What concrete forms can cognitive enhancement take?

'It may be healthy people taking medication to stay more focused, like Ritalin, which is normally prescribed for attention deficit and hyperacivity disorders. But it could also be the use of new neurotechnologies to increase language learning skills. A the moment, it is still a minority of students and professionals who are experimenting with cognitive enhancement, in many cases a repurposing of medications originally developed to cure some disease. But they are a growing minority.'

Did you know? According to a survey among 1100 medical students in the US, almost one in five claimed to have used a human enhancer.

Musicians are increasingly taking beta blockers to calm their nerves before a concert.Musicians are increasingly taking beta blockers to calm their nerves before a concert.

With your research you are anticipating a future in which cognitive enhancement is possible without any harmful side effects for human health. Why?

'Because as long as serious side effects exist, these technologies will remain heavily regulated. This will restrict their use and at most a few foolhardy individuals willing to risk their health will obtain them through illegitimate channels for the purpose of cognitive enhancement. But in time these technologies will get better, because that’s what technologies do. They will be able to enhance us without damaging our health. And what should our laws say then?'

Cognitive enhancement may be helpful when fewer young people have to take care of an ageing population.

There seems to be nothing wrong with being more focused or learning languages at a higher pace.

'Cognitive enhancement does indeed hold promise for a better society. It may, for instance, be helpful when fewer young people have to take care of an ageing population. They could start working sooner, due to having to spend less time in school by increasing the pace at which they learn. Or they could improve their work-life balance because they need fewer hours to get their jobs done. Or maybe older people can be enhanced so that they can stay productive and in employment for longer.'

Is there a down side to cognitive enhancement?

'As an individual, if you could choose a pill which would make you perform better without any harmful side effects, would you pop that pill? It sounds like a no-brainer; of course you would. Except think of this: when people hear that I am getting a competitive advantage by popping this pill, they wonder if they should be doing it too and probably in the end they will. The more people hear about it, the more they will be likely to use enhancers. My worry is that before you know it, the expectations are that everybody should be able to perform at that enhanced level, that it will become the new normal. And let's not underestimate what the impact on our lives would be.'

‘Let’s not underestimate what the impact on our lives would be if cognitive enhancement becomes the new normal.’‘Let’s not underestimate what the impact on our lives would be if cognitive enhancement becomes the new normal.’

Could you give an example?

'Compare it to the smartphone and how that changed our lives, imposing the demand of constant availability. Don’t you sometimes wish you could get away from it? Or let me give a more personal example. A couple of years ago I got hold of some enhancing medication myself. As I experimented with it, I found that it did indeed make me more productive. I could work longer hours while remaining focused and alert. Furthermore, I discovered that I could travel half way round the world and not experience jet lag. So at the time I thought: great, I can work this hard without any side effects; how cool. But here is the other thing that happened. I also broke up with my partner of seven years. This is not surprising, given my changed work attitude. So even if the pills I took had no medical side effects, I do value relationships and I regret the fact that my work practice – made possible and attractive by this medication - led to the end of a good relationship because it changed the way I lived.'

What kind of academic research does this new phenomenon require?

'I am happy that the Responsible Innovation programme allows us to work with the  Centre for Neuroethics at the University of Oxford, where researchers investigate the effects of neurotechnologies on human life. A subject like cognitive enhancement can only be tackled if academics of different backgrounds work together. We need legal researchers to investigate whether our current legal system is prepared for dealing with future law suits. For instance, a patient may sue a surgeon for malpractice because the surgeon was drowsy while operating and did not take a cognitive enhancer to wake himself up. We need socio-psychologists to ensure that our proposed legal reforms take stakeholders' intuitions about what's right and wrong into account. And we need philosophers to design the right kind of studies that shed light on responsibility from a moral perspective.'

In future, a patient may sue a surgeon for malpractice because the surgeon was drowsy while operating and did not take a cognitive enhancer to wake himself up.In future, a patient may sue a surgeon for malpractice because the surgeon was drowsy while operating and did not take a cognitive enhancer to wake himself up.

What are the ethical dimensions to cognitive enhancement?

'There are many ethical questions entailed: do professionals in certain circumstances have the responsibility to enhance themselves, and if so when and why? What if they refuse to? Who's responsible if bad outcomes occur? And can those who did enhance themselves and who therefore acquired a higher mental capacity than normal human beings also take praise for their better performance? Might they acquire more responsibility?'

What is going to happen at the conference you organised in August?

'It's very exciting to present research papers in this young academic field and have them commented on by people from different academic disciplines as well as professionals from outside academia. For instance, we will have panels with academics as well as students, teachers, university rectors and physicians, to discuss whether the use of cognitive enhancers in education should be permitted. I hope the interaction at the conference will give rise to new academic questions.'

We should take the promise of cognitive enhancement seriously, but legitimate concerns about unwanted societal consequences as well

An aim of the Responsible Innovation research programme is to help design innovations in a societally responsible manner. What contribution do you hope to make?

'We will sit around the table with policy makers and with representatives from pilots', physicians' and military associations. Depending on our research, we will propose new legal regulation. We also offer a service to look over professional codes of conduct and suggest how they can be modified to deal with the advent of cognitive enhancement technologies. But we’ve discovered that there are many taboos concerning cognitive enhancement. So in the current stage of our project it is also our aim to destigmatise cognitive enhancement, so that it can be the subject of a public debate. In a democratic society we ought to discuss this stuff. Then we can find the right balance between on the one hand the promise of this technology, which should be taken seriously, and on the other hand legitimate concerns about societal consequences that we as a society may not want.'

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