A futurist in Dan Brown’s novel Origin predicts that within five decades, humanity will merge with technology to create a utopian future. While Origin was a work of fiction, the advances in the field of human augmentation may very well make it a reality of the future we come to live in.

So, what exactly is human augmentation? It refers to a specialised field of research that is directed towards enhancing innate human abilities with the use of technology or medicine. These could enhance human actions, senses or understanding, eventually modifying the definition on what it means to be human.

Think of it this way: Iron Man and Batman do not have any innate superpowers, but they have turned into ‘super’ humans as they have harnessed the power of technology to augment their human abilities.

In the past, all interventions related to human augmentation have been invasive—either with the consumption of chemical substances to ameliorate or better a function or the surgical addition of an implant. Human augmentation tools then became related to the use of external tools like microscopes or binoculars. The latest stride that the field of non-invasive human augmentation has taken is the use of wearable, Augmented Reality (AR) or multimodal interaction technologies.

The applications of human augmentation are far-reaching and extend across sectors ranging from medicine to big data.

Human Augmentation Types

Human augmentation can be one of three types, based on their function:

1. To restore or replicate human abilities

This refers to when technologies are used to restore or replicate human functions. This is particularly helpful in the field of medicine to restore function in the case of disabilities at birth or as a result of a traumatic incident.

Instances of using human augmentation to replicate human abilities including cochlear implants and e-sight for legally blind individuals to use to overcome their hearing or sight disabilities respectively.

The use of these human augmentation devices greatly impact the user’s psychological wellbeing for the better.

2. To add to human abilities

Using human augmentation for supplementing what may be one’s given human tendencies falls under this category. The technology would take an individual’s physical or cognitive abilities to open up a whole new avenue of possibilities.

Instances of using human augmentation to supplement human abilities would include enhancing one’s strength or the functioning of a particular sense like the Exoskeleton or Google Glass would.

3. To go beyond human abilities

Exceeding human abilities is a possibility with the use of human augmentation technologies today. What may be considered an impossible feat for a human being can be done with the use of human augmentation technologies.

A few instances of using human augmentation to go beyond human capabilities would include flight or the ability to breathe underwater.

The Effect of Human Augmentation on Manual Labour

As mentioned before, human augmentation finds applications in a variety of sectors. A few of these use cases have created a transformation on how manual labour has been conventionally viewed. With the classification of the different types of human augmentation above, it is apparent that the ability to supplement or exceed human tendencies would add great value to several industries that traditionally depend on large volumes of manual labour.

However, like every emerging technology, human augmentation too has its fair share of concerns, especially pertaining to data privacy, security, compliance with ethics and codes, as well as the long-term physical or mental health impacts. Once all of these are answered and a new innovation in human augmentation is developed, it can transform the way tasks have been traditionally done.

Let’s cite a few examples each of how so far human augmentation has reduced the load and dependency on multiple personnel to successfully execute and complete labour-intensive tasks with the following collaborations across three levels:

1. Shepherd Partnership

This type of human augmentation involves the use of a ‘herd’ or group of machines/robots managed by a single personnel. This reduces the load on a person to complete considerably routine tasks and allows them to supervise a machine completing what they may take longer to complete.

- During the COVID-19 pandemic, with fewer nursing staff available to monitor the condition of heavy patient inflow, augmentation technologies came through in the form of hospital robots. Several hospital robots can together be managed by a single nurse held in-charge as the robots collect temperature, sanitise rooms and medication and supplies delivery. These are otherwise mundane and fairly routine tasks completed by overworked and well-educated nurses.

2. Partnership by Extension

In this type of partnership, the strengths of both the human and the machine collaboratively produce a quicker and better result than a human being would individually.

- The use of exoskeletons or robotic exosuits has transformed the way manual labour is viewed in the construction industry. With passive and active applications, they allow humans to improve their strength as well as perform repetitive tasks in an easier manner. It reduces the risk of accidents and overexertion of the manual workers too.

- Cognitive predictive technologies can examine and review large volumes of data to a level that is not humanly possible to predict unfavourable outcomes of a situation. An instance would be the use of these technologies to flag high-risk cases pertaining to child welfare so that the experts on the field can use their skills and lower this risk resulting in favourable outcomes.

3. Machine-guided

In this type of partnership, a machine or technology leads the way in aiding human beings to gain new skills or adopt behaviours which may be favourable to completion of a task more efficiently and in a more complete manner.

- Digital assistants are gaining popularity all over the world owing to their ability to crawl large volumes of data to compile lists that would otherwise take humans several days and a considerable effort to complete. Another simpler example would be popular AI-powered writing enhancement tools like Grammarly that guide a person to commit fewer errors in their day-to-day writing.

- The use of the Google Glass as a human augmentation tool has seen its benefit in production units- it can detail out instructions step-by-step, aid in making the right selection when it comes to tools and take photographic evidence and give detailed reports on issues in production. A single machine can supervise, monitor and report on all of these tasks may otherwise require manual labour from a number of factory workers.

For tasks with process-oriented and quantitative reasoning skills involved, it is suggested that machines are preferred as they reduce the incidence of human error. Technological unemployment is a concern of several factory workers, but augmentation and automation will never reach a point of completely replacing humans at work. In fact, the use of these human augmentation tools will allow for a person to complete their task in a more successful manner, with the conjunction of their superior cross-functional reasoning skills, which an automation may not possess.