“We are not used to wealthy people having a completely different biological experience of being alive."
Image: Flickr user Greg Knapp
It's easy to blame politicians and greedy corporations for the growing gap between the rich and poor, but some say it's actually sleep technology that will spark the class war of the future.
Some experts believe that sleep reduction gadgets will intensify the planet's income inequality problem, because only wealthy people will be able to afford them and can spend those extra waking hours working, making the rich even richer.
In the next 20 years, military leaders will unlock the secret to needing only two hours of sleep a night, using a "combination of devices and chemicals," predicted Marcelo Rinesi of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. Rinesi predicts that once scientists work out the glitches and reduce negative side effects, the productivity-boosting machines will become available to civilians.
Like computers, early models of these sleep innovations will likely cost tens of thousands of dollars, offering a biological advantage to those who are already economically advantaged, Rinesi said. That will likely trigger outrage and protest, he predicted. "The social and economic impact is going to be huge. It's going to create a lot of resentment and envy. We are not used to wealthy people having a completely different biological experience of being alive."
"It will give employers a lot of leverage, especially in a tight labor market as companies begin to rely more on robots," he added. "This my personal dystopia."
"In 50 years we might hear people say, 'Oh that poor person, he has to be unconscious for 8 hours a day.'"
Today, poor people live shorter, less-healthy lives, often plagued by obesity and sickness, according to data from the Urban Institute. Soon, they may be forced to add sleep to the list of factors that lower their quality of life, Rinesi said. "Sleep is not a disease—but in 50 years we might hear people say, 'Oh that poor person, he has to be unconscious for 8 hours a day.'"
Early sleep reduction tools will likely be "machines that soldiers hook themselves up to" in order to monitor and adjust neurochemistry, Rinesi said. As the design is perfected, the tool will become iPod-sized and portable and eventually get "smaller and cheaper and better" until it's tiny enough to be "implanted into the brain," he said. The implants will stimulate sections of the brain, and likely be paired with pharmaceuticals to speed up metabolism and tweak brain and body chemistry, he explained.
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Professionals who earn high rates, such as lawyers and hedge fund executives, will be motivated to spend their extra hours working, he said. Others may feel a pressure to compete with robot workers, agreed bioethicist James Hughes.
Think of sleep technology as the new coffee, said Hughes, author of the nonfiction book Citizen Cyborg: Why Democratic Societies Must Respond to the Redesigned Human of the Future.
"It will be used like caffeine and amphetamines to increase production—mother's little helper," he predicted. "In the future, the number of jobs will decline due to robots and those who don't have to sleep as much will have a huge advantage."
It may seem ripped from the pages of a science fiction novel, but the US military has already been studying how to reduce sleep, according to a "Human Performance" report commissioned by the Pentagon.
"The most immediate human performance factor in military effectiveness is degradation of performance under stressful conditions, particularly sleep deprivation," according to the 2008 report.
The report drummed up a sense of urgency about being first to tap into sleep technology. "If an opposing force had a significant sleep advantage, this would pose a serious threat… The manipulation and understanding of human sleep is one part of human performance modification where significant breakthroughs could have national security consequences," it stated.
Five years later, the US Military's research branch designed a mask to reduce the need for sleep. The Somneo Sleep Trainer warms the face and blocks out audio and visual distractions to encourage deep sleep quickly—allowing the user to get better sleep in less time, according to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. It also features a blue light that gradually brightens as the user's waking-time approaches, restricting the sleep hormone melatonin to create a less groggy feeling.
Military leaders, such as World War II leader General George Patton, have long used sleep as a strategy to win wars, the Human Performance report points out, by exploiting the enemy's state of exhaustion. In World War II, the Nazis took methamphetamine to stay alert and enhance performance— calling the speed an "alertness aid" and "a miracle pill," according to Nobel-prize-winning German author Heinrich Boll.
The way Rinesi sees it, sleep reduction technology is an extension of that. "We're still not sure how to keep people awake without making them psychotic. But it's going to be US military or Chinese military that figures out how to do it. They have the money and need for it," he said. "Once it gets into civilian hands, that's when it gets interesting."
Technology has already played a major role in widening the income gap in America in the past 60 years. "Some economists now believe that... the major driving force behind the changes in the U.S. wage structure is technology," a report from the National Bureau of Economic Research noted. "There is a direct causal relationship between technological changes and these radical shifts in the distribution of wages taking place in the U.S. economy."
But putting restrictions on technology—including sleep reduction tools—isn't the the way to solve the problem, Hughes said. "We don't ban kale because it's better for you than potato chips," he said, adding the gadgets could enhance productivity and quality of life in the same way that healthy diets do.
Instead, it's up to governmental branches to help level the playing field. In the future, the solution to shrinking the gap between rich and poor won't be much different than today, Hughes said. "It's the same thing we've being trying to do for 150 years," he said. "Tax the rich."
You'll Sleep When You're Dead is Motherboard's exploration of the future of sleep. Read more stories.