Long reads

Are you ready for cyborg workers?

24 Sep 2020 By Siobhan Palmer

Augmented colleagues are coming – but how will HR cope?

Pictured: Mind-controlled robot Pushkin is operated with an EEG cap. The wearer concentrates on a command such as ‘move’ and the cap reads the EEG data and translates it into an instruction for the robot

In 2004, Neil Harbisson was let go from his café job. The reason? The antenna surgically implanted into his skull was not deemed appropriate for someone serving customers. 

Harbisson began developing the antenna – which translates colours into audible vibrations in his head – while studying music, partially sparked by his lack of visual colour perception (he sees in greyscale). Through his invention, he is able to sense colours in a unique way, including frequencies invisible to the human eye such as infrareds and ultraviolets. While the antenna began as an art project (he’s been described as the world’s first cyborg artist), he became so drawn to the concept he had it permanently implanted. He has since set up two activist and community groups for those who identify as cyborgs (cybernetic organisms, or humans with technological enhancements to their bodies), and made a number of public appearances speaking about his experience, including at 2019’s inaugural CIPD Festival of Work.

But back in 2004, Harbisson accepted the termination of his employment as inevitable. He saw it as a matter of dress code, similarly to being asked not to wear earrings or to hide tattoos, and looked instead for jobs that didn’t involve direct contact with the public. He now considers it not an accessory but an organ, however – and being denied a job because of it akin to being discriminated against because of a prosthetic limb. If the same thing happened now he would probably sue the café, he says.

Harbisson’s experience might seem highly unique. But some suggest it is only a matter of time before cyborgs become more commonplace as technology becomes ever more integrated into our daily lives. So do cyborgs represent the next frontier in equality and diversity? Do HR teams need to start thinking about this now?

“In the future, everyone will be a cyborg,” asserts Scott Cohen, co-founder of CyborgNest, which describes itself as a ‘mindware’ company, reflecting its purpose of merging biological intelligence with digital intelligence. It’s a bold claim. But it’s one Cohen feels qualified to make given how many people followed suit to make the same augmentation to their bodies as he had made to his. 

Cohen has two titanium rods in his chest that anchor a circuit board that sends vibrations under his skin when he is facing north. The consequence is a new sense – one of orientation in the world, similar to the innate sense of migratory animals. “It’s hard to explain, but it enhances your experience of the planet and your connection with it,” he says. 

Cohen and his co-creators made 300 such implants when developing the concept, called North Sense. “The idea was, if we can get 10 crazy people to do it with us, it would validate this principle,” he explains. “But in the end, we didn’t get 10 people to do it. We sold all 300.”

So both Harbisson and Cohen are sure they won’t be considered a fringe phenomenon for long. “I don’t have the timeline, but without a doubt it’s coming,” Cohen says. “And the problem is, there’s no rights or protections around that.” Since 2010, Harbisson and another technologically enhanced artist, Moon Ribas, have headed up the Cyborg Foundation, an international organisation that exists to help more people become cyborgs, and which has also drawn up a list of cyborg rights – albeit ones yet to be adopted by any legal system. They include a right for cyborgs to freedom from ‘disassembly’ and to ‘ownership interest’ in any devices implanted in their bodies.  

But Dr Nic Hammarling, business psychologist and head of diversity at Pearn Kandola, says “to attempt to legislate your way around [cyborg rights] is incredibly difficult”. The concept covers a spectrum of experiences; for some people technological enhancements mitigate a disability, whereas some adopt them as a matter of choice. 

Hammarling believes conversation and education are key to ensuring everyone feels included in a workplace. But when it comes to those with technological enhancements, she emphasises that “allowing people to talk about the fact that it might make [others] feel uncomfortable to see this” would be ill-advised. Appearance might be the first thing that separates cyborgs from others, but it shouldn’t, as in Harbisson’s case, be a reason to treat someone differently. 

Rob Spence understands why some people treat him and the camera implanted in his eye socket (pictured) with suspicion. “It’s a problem that it’s not the window to the soul anymore. It’s like the window to YouTube. People feel betrayed,” he says. But fears over privacy are emotional rather than rational, he says. If someone takes issue with his ability to film and stream footage straight from his eye, his response is: “What about your smartphone?” Emma Parry, professor of human resource management at Cranfield University, says he has a point. “We all use technology to improve our behaviour,” she says, noting that implanted tech is only a small step away from heart-rate monitors, hearing aids and smartphones. 

Parry says the tipping point for any aspect of workplace diversity is normalisation. She, like Harbisson and Cohen, feels that as cyborgs become a more prominent part of daily life, workplace culture will automatically become more accepting of such difference. From an HR perspective, collaboration and mixed teams will help the process along, Parry says, pointing to current work on combatting age discrimination: “Making sure you have cross-age and cross-generational teams has proved quite successful in improving that normalisation.”

There seems to be a consensus that if (or indeed, when) cyborgs do enter the workplace, D&I efforts will benefit from the progress already made in ensuring workplaces are inclusive of different ethnicities, disabilities, genders and sexualities. As Spence reflects: “Everyone’s getting pretty woke now.” He points to attitudes towards disability. Where once people were sometimes even encouraged to cover up their prosthetic limbs, now they wear them with pride, inside and outside the workplace. 

However, Parry questions whether common D&I strategies for supporting and championing minority or under-represented groups are appropriate here. Individuals identifying as transhuman or trans-species are not a historically marginalised group and it’s important to consider how cyborg identity intersects with other characteristics, she says: “Does this become a young persons’ thing? Do we start designing augmentations that are more appropriate for men than women?” 

With the majority of visible cyborgs currently men, it’s possible transhuman identity could act as a proxy for ‘male and affluent’. Networks such as CyborgNest and the Cyborg Foundation champion the accessibility of such enhancements (Cohen and Spence are both working on projects to reduce the cost of producing their respective implants). But the existence of such initiatives implies this is currently out of reach for many, suggesting a danger of workplace diversity initiatives focusing on cyborgs potentially working counter to the representation and inclusion of women and those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, for example.

Ensuring the equitable treatment of cyborg employees will be a knotty issue indeed, then, for HR and D&I professionals. And the jury is out on when exactly such tricky considerations will become a day-to-day reality for the average people team. But values can change fairly quickly. It is worth considering how relatively recently LGBT individuals – now central to organisational D&I activities – were actively discriminated against in UK workplaces. 

For Hammarling, the trick to supporting a wide range of identities is to move away slightly from grouping and targeting them in a singular way. “I’m making the point that actually we need as human beings to move away from this perception of ‘you fit in this box, or this box’,” she says, pointing out that contending with transhuman employees could force a positive shift away from this. 

So maybe ‘diversity of species’, as Harbisson describes it, will be an identity too far for workplaces to categorise – forcing a new, better approach to including everyone at work.  

Hack your body 

What kinds of augmentations do people currently have?

Moon Ribas 

Co-founder of the Cyborg Foundation alongside Harbisson, Ribas has an implant that allows her to sense seismic activity, or earthquakes, across the world. 

Kevin Warwick  

Nicknamed ‘Captain Cyborg’, engineer and Coventry University vice chancellor Warwick began working on cybernetic enhancements to his body in 1998. A device implanted in his left arm controls a robotic hand using only signals from his brain. 

Dana Lewis 

Lewis and her partner developed a so-called ‘artificial pancreas’, which is used to manage her type 1 diabetes. Her device, adapted from her glucose monitor and insulin pump, predicts her blood sugar levels and automatically administers the appropriate dose of insulin. 

Jerry Jalava  

Finnish Jalava replaced a chunk of his finger lost in a motorcycle accident with a USB stick. 

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