The Ethics of Exoskeletons

Abhiram Pulavarthi
5 min readJun 30, 2021

A look into the future of wearable robotics. Whether we see an advancement or a dystopia is up to us.

Picture a world where robots do all our work, omniscient machines predict the future, and robotic caretakers serve as our friends.

An optimist might be intrigued by such a future; a cynic would despise it. But the rest of us have a choice to make.

The idea of robots evolving to surpass human ability has always plagued our minds. It’s led to the creation of books, films, conspiracies, and more.

We let our imagination run wild and fantasize about a sci-fi future with technology at its foundation.

Whether or not we believe these futures will become a reality, our imaginations pick at the same questions researchers ask today when developing new technology: “Where do humans and machines meet? What does it mean to be human? And can humans and robots ultimately co-exist?”

Today, we don’t have to seek shelter from our robot overlords, but we do have to ponder technology’s role in society. As we look towards an automated future, we also need to consider technology’s negative implications. In this regard, the creation of exoskeletons and wearable robotics raises an eye.

Wearable robotics exist in multiple forms. Prosthetics and exoskeletons (think iron man) are a few examples: both augment human ability. A prosthetic restores limb functionality while exoskeletons improve them. Today, wearable robotics are used to cure physiological diseases or assist workers in laborious tasks. But as more advancements are made in the field, we have the opportunity to either create a more advanced society or a sci-fi dystopia.

Privacy

As an extension of the human body, wearable robotics can record health data and usage statistics. Manufacturers could use this information to improve the functionality of the robotic system. But, it may also be used as a form of surveillance technology.

Just as CCTVs monitor public action, wearable robotics can monitor individuals.

Used in a work setting, companies could collect information like work time, heart rate, oxygen levels, and even brain activity from a wearable device. With this information, companies have much more control over their workers and could set new standards of practice. Worker efficiency wouldn’t solely be based on productivity but also on the aforementioned metrics. Workers who were overly tiring themselves (observed through elevated heart rates and excessive oxygen consumption) may be fired.

Wearable robotics used as surveillance technology violates the user’s right to privacy. Everything the workers do is constantly monitored and workers’ mistakes can be permanently recorded and even held against them.

Even in social settings, wearable technology could track people wherever they go. Your heart rate, oxygen levels, and brain activity could be monitored at a birthday party or picnic.

What’s more, wearable robotics in the market today (Fitbit, google fit, etc.) do not have to comply with HIPAA, giving companies greater discretion with what they do with user data. Wearables could be the next unregulated market that spirals out of control.

“Less Human”

In interviews with employees from Amazon fulfillment centers, workers discussed the hazardous working environment at the warehouses. One employee noted:

“The part they don’t talk about is the safety rules that you have to ignore to make [the expected] rate.”

With wearable robotics, this statement would be further exacerbated. As wearable robotics enhance worker ability, the required “expected rate” would only increase. The safety rules that workers need to ignore in order to make this new rate may be even more pronounced if the assumption that wearables make a worker less human takes root. Workers would be expected to perform super-human tasks since they are no longer viewed as entirely human.

And this leads to an entirely different problem. Society already considers those with prosthetics differently: society may attach a similar stigma to those with wearables. Children in school and workers in the office may be treated differently because of the technology they wear. To those around them, they may seem less human.

Cybersecurity

With any new technological device arises the opportunity for bad actors to take advantage of the system. Wearable robotics are vulnerable in the same way smart-home assistants and other IoT devices are. Given their size and complexity, wearable robotics and IoT devices lack the necessary computational power to protect against cyber attacks. Therefore, any data stored on the device may be at risk. As a result, wearable robotics may be especially vulnerable to brute force attacks, which anybody can simply learn how to carry out via youtube. And since these devices will be used in conjunction with humans, a cyber-attack could potentially harm the user.

Democratization

Although wearable robotic’s functions are presently limited, the field is set to explode in the future. And as is the concern with any new technology, the issue of equality becomes way too apparent. Prices of wearable robotics remain high, thus making them affordable to only a few. Prices will change as the technology changes, but these price fluctuations will create a discrepancy in access to wearables. Groups without access will be disadvantaged, and the opposite applies to groups with access. This technology can act as another separating factor between humans: those with and without wearable robotics. If left unaddressed, the issue will only perpetuate.

Future Steps

With all of the issues mentioned, the solution boils down to developing technology for social good: developing equitable and responsible technology for the benefit of society. Without guidance from the beginning, the vast, intrepid jungle that is technology will grow uncontrollably.

There are a lot of “coulds and ifs” in this post, but we’ve seen serious ethical issues arise before with big tech and AI. We’re all waiting for the next big thing. Whatever that may be, it needs to be guided and nurtured into a beneficial addition to society. We need to address the ifs now, before they become a reality.

It’s an investigative mindset that can actively shape society. Any technology possesses inherent risks and detriments. By reflecting, we can predict issues that may arise with wearables or any future technology, for that matter. We can ensure technology remains a positive force if we take a more analytical approach, reason for ourselves, and come to an informed opinion. We all have to become researchers for a day in order to decide the futures we want. Any technology will have its terms and conditions. Society, however, will have to figure out what they are.

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