Human Enhancement Technologies: Bringing the Regulation Debate into the Public Eye

Lead Research Organisation: University of Oxford
Department Name: Law Faculty


Increasingly, technological and medical developments are providing people with ways to enhance themselves. These include cognitive enhancement drugs (eg modafinil), devices (eg tDCS) and germline technologies (eg CRISPR). One good, current example is the use of cognitive enhancers (CEs) that can improve human mental capacities. One popular CE, modafinil, a drug used to treat narcolepsy, can combat decreases in cognitive capacity that occur due to fatigue. CEs are used by students to help them study longer, and by professionals who need to maintain wakefulness.

The use of enhancements is becoming a practical reality, and use is likely to expand and increase given the benefits and competitive advantages they may offer. The Royal Society and others have even suggested some high-responsibility professions such as surgeons and pilots might even be obliged to enhance themselves. These developments raise important moral, legal and scientific questions about whether, and how, we should regulate such technologies of which the public needs to be aware.

There has been considerable academic discussion around questions about the use of such enhancers, including: Is it fair to use CEs? Do cognitive enhancers precipitate an authentic life? Should the law regulate their use? How? Should certain professionals like doctors be required to take cognitive enhancers if it will prevent harm to others? The debate is currently played out mainly in the philosophical literature, and to an increasing extent, the legal literature. But it became clear during my Network project that the debate is still too philosophical. I found it was difficult to find many legal academics working on issues that will become pressing. It became evident that still less attention is being given to these matters by policy-makers, and that there is little public conversation about the issues.

This is serious problem as the use of these highly useful, potentially dangerous technologies is increasing and widening. The likelihood is that our capacity to enhance ourselves will only grow. This will have complex impacts on society and the workplace, and will raise a multiplicity of regulatory questions. The answers policy-makers give to these questions will have a real impact on many people, and therefore they demand full, informed public debate. Yet despite this need for a well-informed public response and research output that takes account the views of non-academics, little has been done to engage with the public, inform them and also be informed by their views. Further, much of the information about the effects and side-effects of CEs online is academic and difficult for the public to access.

This project will engage and inform the public on these issues via an interactive website and online engagement campaign. Its particular aim is to help site visitors to think through the ethical and legal issues raised by enhancement technologies to arrive at their own views about how we should regulate. It will also be a space in which the public can see what others think, and discuss with them. Consequently, it will therefore provide both a dataset about public attitudes for my research, and offer a means for policy-makers to gain an insight into the public's views.

This needs to be done in a way that draws the public into the issue, presents them with clear, easy-to-understand information and gives them a chance to express their views about these. This will be achieved via a website hosting infographics and information about enhancement; talking heads videos of experts explaining and discussing the issues; forums and Twitter feed to enable public discussion; and a series of interactive animations that will present scenarios that explain the issues. Data from the site will be collected anonymously.

Planned Impact

This project is squarely focused on having an impact outside of the academic sphere. There are a number of groups that will be targeted and for differing reasons.

1. General public
Human enhancement technologies may seem like science fiction, but they are in fact already a reality. For example, students take study drugs to stay awake longer and focus more on their work. Is this cheating? Should they be disciplined if found to have taken them prior to an exam? How should educational institutions manage the risks they pose? Should government step in? As another example, the very same drugs are used by the US military to enable pilots to concentrate on long missions. Should a pilot be required to take them on commercial flights if she feels fatigued? Is this part of her duty of care? What should the law do if she could have taken such drugs, but did not and then made a fatal error? What if these drugs pose a risk to her health? Does this make a difference?

These are real issues that potentially affect us all. Drugs and devices that enhance people offer competitive advantages in the workplace and in education. Employers may well have incentives to require their use, while we might all benefit if those in high responsibility professions use them. But there are risks, and we must balance these.

This project aims to increase public awareness of these technologies and the issues they raise to promote informed engagement in future regulatory decision-making. In a democracy, it is important that the public can access information to participate in such decision-making. The benefit of this project will be access to:
- data about these technologies and to accessible summaries of the academic debates
- an online space in which to debate these issues
- means by which to explore these issues in an engaging way

2. Policy-makers
Policy-makers have the same information needs as the general public. But they also need to have a sense of public views as they should, in a democracy, take these on board in making regulatory decisions. This project will feedback public views via data reporting and publicly available discussion forums, offering a means for policy-makers and governmental representatives to inform themselves about public views.

3. Commercial / private sector and professional / practitioner groups
Enhancement technologies will clearly have an impact in many employment spheres. As noted elsewhere, there have already been public suggestions that some professions might be obliged to self-enhance. This may carry risks for people in these professions, and therefore members and their representative bodies need to be able to access information and be engaged in this conversation.

Employers more generally will increasingly face the possibility of using enhancers in the workplace. This may be beneficial, it may be problematic. It is an emerging area of concern, and it is important that employers have access to appropriate information.

For these reasons, such professional groups and other representative bodies, as well as policy-makers, will be targeted as part of the engagement strategy.


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