Saturday September 09, 2017

Will you have to become a cyborg for your job?

(Shutterstock)

Listen 21:20

CBC Radio is looking at the future of work this fall in our Workshift series. And one of the things we're talking about is that "work is changing — are you?" In this program we're looking at our potential future as cyborgs — humans enhanced by technology - to improve human productivity and capability, and what the potential risks and drawbacks of this might be.

chip

An implantable RFID chip (Three Square Market)

There was something of a turning point this summer in the working world, when about 50 employees of a company called Three Square Market in Wisconsin were "chipped" — injected with tiny devices that can communicate with computers outside their bodies.

These internal RFID tags mean that with a wave of their hand they can enter security doors, log in to their computers or grab a snack from the company vending machines. These employees had become cyborg workers — a hybrid of human and technology.

Amber Case is a fellow at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, and studies "cyborg anthropology" — the interaction between humans and our technology.

She thinks the Three Squared Market case introduces critical issues about human integrity, security, and privacy that will have a lot of impact on how we think about technology in the workplace.

There are practical questions too, like what happens when you quit your job or move to a new one when your company has put technology in your body.

'If you change jobs, do you reprogram that RFID or take it out? ... This isn't something you can't just turn off and put on your bedside table - it's now part of you.'
- Anthropologist Amber Case
hololens

Microsoft HoloLens augmented reality glasses (Microsoft)

Even if the tech isn't in our bodies, we'll be working much more intimately with it in the near future, according to engineer, Dr. Thorsten Wuest, a professor of Smart Manufacturing at West Virginia University. He's been studying a range of prototype technologies for what he calls the "technology augmented worker."  

'These apocalyptic scenarios are painted, but we saw it a little bit different, and thought we should focus on the chances that technology offers to really make work on the shop floor better. ' - Engineer Dr.  Thorsten Wuest

He talks about workers using powered exoskeletons to act as human fork-lifts, augmented reality devices like Google Glass or the Microsoft Hololens on the factory floor and the Maven co-pilot  that alerts truckers to drowsiness — or just bad driving habits.  Of course these technologies may enhance workers' abilities, but they also give employers ways to ever more closely monitor their employees.

body builders

The Body Builders by Adam Piore

What the more distant future might hold, in terms of the technology of human "enhancement" is what Adam Piore  writes about in his book The Body Builders: Inside the Science of the Engineered Human.  He explores topics like "augmented cognition" in which computers monitor human brain states to find ways to enhance human cognitive performance, and brain computer interfaces which could allow computers to read our minds, and enable communication and the speed of thought.

'We now have the computational and sensing power to reverse engineer the human body and mind ...  If we understand how the human body and mind work and we can take it apart and put it together and hack the system we can also augment and upgrade abilities.' - Journalist Adam Piore
brain computer interface

Brain computer interface using EEG (US Army)

These technologies might just help us win - or at least not lose - the race against automation by allowing us to compete with robots and artificial intelligence for our jobs.  But the demands and the risks will likely be substantial, which means it might not necessarily be a race worth winning.  

'We were told that the advent of technology would increase our free time, and instead it's more like a gas that expands to fill every single part of our lives and make us more dependent on it.'
-  Anthropologist Amber Case

WorkShift is a month-long radio and digital series examining the profound changes in the way people work.  Subscribe to the WorkShift Newsletter for a chance to share your story with the nation. Or browse through a constantly expanding lineup of great stories.