Would you agree to have a microchip implanted in your body if it would significantly help your career? That was a question posed at a debate on the threat of technology to jobs, held this week at The Work Foundation in London.
New technology has helped substantially displace or destroy jobs for over 200 years (and probably much longer), enabling companies to replace workers – whether they be artisans, low-skilled factory employees or clerical staff – with equipment that can run faster, longer and for lower cost.
But what if competition for jobs wasn’t between man and machine but between regular humans and those with technological enhancements. Future implants and prostheses may allow us to become stronger, smarter and more efficient at our jobs.
One day we may be able to implant microchips in our brain that allow us to store large amounts of complex information, or enhance our ability to process it, or send that information directly to other people or machines. Or implant chips in our eyes that let us use the internet without an external screen.
A poll taken at the debate found that roughly half of respondents would at least consider such an implant, which I think seems quite a high number for what is potentially a very scary concept. One could imagine many people having a very strong repulsion to the idea of something so invasive as having their brain connected to the internet and effectively making them a cyborg.
But technology plays an increasingly prominent role in our lives and more and more people, especially younger people, are comfortable with that. Smart phones have become ubiquitous, glued to people’s hands and always in their gaze. Wearable computers such as the much-anticipated Google Glass will only amplify that trend.
If you could turn off such an the enhancement at will and it didn’t have the ability to affect the rest of your brain, it might be easy to see little difference between a chip in your brain and the one in a box that’s always in your pocket? Personally I’d be open to considering it if I could see substantial benefit.
And, as cybernetics expert Prof Kevin Warwick pointed out at the debate, our attitude towards technology that interacts with our bodies changes over time and we are likely to become more accepting of it if we can see it is safe, like laser eye surgery, for example.
However, the debate isn’t really that simple and the discussion touched on many more of the ethical consequences of such developments. If the benefit of such an implant was really so significant, would it not therefore give an unfair advantage to those who could afford it, further widening the inequality in society?
Could people be forced to have such implants against their will or better judgement? Would such a chip even redefine what we think it means to be human?
It’s also possible to raise the possible consequences to extreme consequences, both bad and good. One audience member at the debate made reference to a dystopian scenario in which everyone with an internet-enabled brain chip was hacked and subjected to a lethal virus.
Warwick acknowledged that such horrendous dangers exist but that we don’t yet really know whether they are real. Nor whether the possibility for great achievement, for example developing intergalactic travel by being able to think about the universe in more than three dimensions, will come true.
‘If you link your brain to a computer you have the distinct possibility of understanding the world in hundreds of dimensions,’ he said. ‘What does that mean? I have no idea because my brain thinks in 3D. It’s outside my basic parameters of understanding.
‘It could mean we could be off and we could travel to distant galaxies. It might not. Nobody can see. All we know at the moment is it’s a possibility. And that could mean even more dangers. But for me it is tremendously exciting.’
Although his point uses extreme examples, it could really be applied to the entire debate about allowing technology to replace human functions in the workplace.
After all, this has already happened to many roles but we still don’t live in a country where most people have been made unemployed. Technology has also created reams of new jobs and entire new industries.
Yes there are dangers, but we don’t know what else we might be able to achieve if we’re not at least open to the possibility.