While exoskeletons may still feel like a product of science fiction, they are increasingly becoming a technological reality, and advancements are being made in bringing functioning exoskeletons into the world.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Biomechatronics Lab is currently developing innovative exoskeletons that work symbiotically with the person wearing it. They are doing this not only with the aim to enable us to be more comfortable, but with the hope that they will allow humans go further and faster than ever before.
Prosthetics have become increasingly advanced in recent years, with the most advanced prosthetics starting to look more like something we might recognize off a cyborg in science fiction, than the functionless plastic limb many people think of when they hear the word ‘prosthetic’. Prosthetics now have sensors with the ability to read brain signals through the nerves in the residual limbs, which then help to move the prosthetic. Creating an exoskeleton then seems almost like a natural progression of this technology.
Tyler Clites, is a PhD student working on the project and a pianist who developed an interest in biotics that can enhance human abilities after developing arthritis in his hands. Clites found that if science is able to restore his skills, then why were they not experimenting with expanding those skills through technology as well?
Clites told the BBC: “I find it very interesting that often as humans we are satisfied with where we are, with some baseline that we have set arbitrarily.” He went on to discuss how technological enhancements could improve skills in areas such as piano playing, and that technologically enhanced abilities have the potential to help us create new music, as an exoskeleton need not be constrained by the same things our physiology is, such as the reach of our fingers over the keys.
Clites and his team are looking at synthetically expanding the human nervous system to include an exoskeleton that aims to allow the person wearing it to reach new physical heights. Professor Hugh Herr, a self-proclaimed bionic man and the leader of the project, reportedly expressed an interest to run at 20mph for an entire day without tiring, and believes that the exoskeleton technology that they are developing at MIT is the way to achieve this goal.
Currently, the team is working on refining exoskeletons that would be able to help workers that are required to be on their feet for long shifts, such as nurses. However, the project has been met with some ethical concerns, as it seems that technology that extends a person’s physical capabilities to keep on their feet, could well lead to even more grueling and laborious work days.
Professor Noel Sharkey, Co-Founder of the Foundation for Responsible Robotics, stated: “You could have exoskeletons on building sites that would help people not get so physically tired, but, working longer would make you mentally tired and we don’t have a means of stopping that.”
Given the spotty reputation of powerful companies when it comes to the treatment of workers, it does seem likely that such a technology becoming readily available has certain risks. The concern is, that if a person is physically able to keep going with the help of technology, then they will eventually be expected to, with the mental health concerns for the worker taking a back seat.
However, this risk does not necessarily outweigh the potential benefits of the technology, and stopping technological advancements through fear that someone somewhere might exploit them would grind advancement to a halt. While making sure new technology is used in an ethical way is an important concern, it does not seem like the onus should be put on the scientists developing it.
If the exoskeleton technology does come to fruition, and people are given the ability to function at a higher capability than ever before, then this would open many doors for people world-wide, and likely be revolutionary for many disabled individuals.