Prominent scientists and ethicists in the U.K. are calling for a public debate about the use of future drugs and technology that will allow people to work longer hours as well as concentrate better.

A report published Wednesday unveiled the specific concerns of such enhancements, written by experts from the Academy of Medical Sciences, the Royal Academy of Engineering, the Royal Society and the British Academy.

A roundtable of leading minds considered a near future in which so-called smart drugs could be utilized to improve a person’s ability to work — enhancing attention and memory — as well as physical and digital alterations including bionic implants.

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New drugs and bionic technology could allow people to work longer hours, but the risks need to be considered. (Mahesh Kumar/Associated Press)

"They could enable us to work in more extreme conditions or into old age," Genevra Richardson, chair of the steering committee that produced Human Enhancement and the Future of Work, told the Guardian newspaper.

Richardson said that new technologies in the workplace raise "serious ethical, political and economic questions that demand broad consideration [including] what are the consequences of their long-term use in individuals?"

Robin Lovell-Badge, one of the chairs at the working group, said the immediate challenge concerns "cognitive enhancing drugs."

Some of these smart drugs already exist. Modafinil, developed to treat the sleeping condition of narcolepsy, has been shown to improve attention while also making tasks feel more enjoyable. For years, college students have been using Ritalin and Adderall, drugs used to treat attention deficit disorder, to help stay focused when studying.

"They are simple to take, already available without prescription, and are increasingly being used by healthy individuals," said Lovell-Badge in the report.

The era of physical enhancements is coming soon, too. Lovell-Badge referred to paralympic athletes, pointing to the running blades of South African athlete Oscar Pistorius, a double amputee. He ran the individual 400 and the 4x400 relay at the London Olympics — the first amputee track athlete to compete at any games

"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 capitalize on the benefits, but not suffer the harms that could come about by their inappropriate use," Lovell-Badge said.

The panel of experts highlighted several issues for governments to consider in their report:

  • Enhancements will change how people work; they might influence an individual’s ability to learn or perform tasks and perhaps even to enter a profession; they will affect how soon a person can return to work after an illness.
  • Studies on short- and long-term effects (both positive and negative) of enhancements on individuals will be needed to back up regulation.
  • The cost of technologies will be an important factor in determining how they are used
  • Drugs are readily available through the internet — posing imminent problems for effective regulation. Digital devices and services with the potential to influence cognition are emerging all the time with little research into the risks and benefits.
  • An interdisciplinary approach is the best way: social scientists, philosophers, ethicists, policymakers and the public are all needed to discuss the ethical and moral consequences of enhancement.