Why the cyborg workforce will arrive sooner than you think

New research by The Law Society in the UK highlights how crucial it is to get our heads around neurotechnology and its impact on the workforce before it becomes exploitative

A report by the Law Society sets out the potential dangers and advantages of introducing  neurotechnology into mainstream society and the legal workforce.

The term neurotechnology encompasses a wide range of devices, including chips that can be inserted into the brain as well as wearable tech such as headsets or wristbands. These devices then create a connection with the brain and central nervous system, allowing the technology to gather data about your brain activity and potentially even influence your thoughts.

‘It allows the technology to gather data about your brain activity and potentially influence your thoughts…’

Neurotechnology is already being used to treat conditions such as Parkinson’s disease and there is hope that it will be rolled out to treat dementia and even mental health conditions. However, the development of such technologies raises several questions about the future of neurotechnology and its potential impact on the workforce.

Working with neurotechnology

There are multiple benefits to using neurotechnology. These include being able to collect more data about your employees and use this to make decisions that support your workforce, helping to  alleviate painful conditions and allowing people to work unencumbered by illness, and even increasing productivity by boosting people’s attention spans.

However, there are concerns about privacy and data security. Would you want your employer to be harvesting data about your brain activity? And who would have rights to your brain data?

There is a concern about data collection becoming a surveillance tool and about organisations creating a culture of fear and intimidation by monitoring the data produced by neurotechnology and utilising it to exploit their workforce.

Additionally, there are concerns around the level of cyber security needed to have brain implants collecting data. Could a chip be hijacked by a third party or competitor? And could someone have their brain activity monitored by their employer without their knowledge or consent?

There are also issues about technological inequality, with wealthier companies and individuals able to augment themselves in ways that the smaller, less well-off firms could never dream of.

The attention economy

Within the legal field, neurotechnology provides an opportunity for legal firms to expand into the law technology field, creating a new area for legal expertise and offering more jobs.

The Law Society also suggests that neurotechnology could give rise to a new type of payment for services in the legal profession. Rather than the current system of ‘billable hours’ where each hour that a lawyer works on a case can be billed for, a new metric could be created based on ‘billable units of attention’ which would require firms to collect data on the brain activity of their lawyers.

Whilst this may seem like a positive thing, as people would be able to charge their legal team in a more accurate way, it could create an incredibly stressful work environment whereby people are desperately trying to keep focus, regardless of their levels of exhaustion.

And it’s not just the legal profession that this new way of paying for services might affect. Many fields where people are paid to consultant and utilise their expertise could go down the same ‘billable units of attention’ route.

The cyborgs are already here

This all sounds very 1984, but the technology that would allow people to monitor these kinds of things is far off in the future, right?

Actually, no.

There is already a growing number of people who have neurotechnology implanted into their bodies, referring to themselves as cyborgs.

The Cyborg Foundation is an organisation dedicated to encourage people to become cyborgs and defend the rights of anyone who wishes to augment themselves with technology. Its founders, artists and activists Neil Harbisson and Moon Riba, describe themselves as cyborgs and Harbisson was the first person to have his cyborg status officially recognised by a governmental body.

‘There are already a number of people who have neurotechnology implanted into their bodies…’

Harbisson, who was born unable to see colours, has an implanted antenna that converts colours into sounds, allowing him to differentiate between different colours for the first time.

Whilst this doesn’t sound particularly threatening, it does illustrate how far neurotechnology has already come and that individuals can take it upon themselves to use neurotechnology to their own advantage. The idea of augmenting your body with technology is clearly no longer limited to the realm of sci-fi films.

The potential that neurotechnology will transform the world of work is enormous and we must begin to anticipate future developments in the field in order to limit the damage it could cause when it reaches a mass market.

Already there are organisations such as the Neurorights Foundation which has begun to create and campaign for a new legal framework in order to protect people from the potentially damaging effects of neurotechnology.

For now, these protections are still in their early stages, and before mass-adoption of neurorights can occur, it is important to stop considering the introduction of neurotechnology a futuristic fantasy and instead recognise it as an impending reality that the working world should take seriously.

Echo Callaghan is an interdisciplinary researcher and writer with WORKTECH Academy. She holds degrees from the University of York and Trinity College Dublin.
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