The idea of a superhuman, a being with supernatural power that looks like a robot but is a real person, was introduced by science fiction writers in the last century. Since the technologies, engineering, and materials had developed it became reality. The Discovery of light but strong materials, a decrease in the size of sensors and their high sensitivity, and innovations in computers and battery technologies prompted the creation of exoskeleton robotics. It was proved that its use for the army forces and rehabilitation has considerable benefits. However, wearable robotics project faces ethical dilemma since they can change human behavior. Thus, the use of exoskeleton suits seems to have several advantages in medical, military, construction, and other spheres. At the same time, the development of this technology is accompanied by numerous ethical issues related to social and religious factors.
The use of exoskeletons
The idea of the suit that can increase humans’ strength and resistance appeared in 1960 and from that time was explored in various aspects. Moreover, numerous companies and foundations designed machine models with different constructions for military and medical purposes. For instance, there are two kinds of exoskeleton suits, namely the whole body-type and lower limb-type. The former is developed by SACROS Company in the USA which tries to reduce the energy consumption by the human operator and add more functions to the suit, particular protection, and flexibility. The lower limb exoskeleton was made by Berkeley’s HULC of the USA (Yang et al. 46). This model is a rehabilitation tool for people who cannot move both legs. The exoskeleton was first used for the army forces since it performs multiple functions and provides considerable assistance to a soldier. For example, when a soldier needs to haul a dozen of kilograms on his back or work in different natural zones, the exoskeleton suit can lessen the pressure on his muscles and bones. In addition, it helps to walk, run, jump, move and carry heavy weapons regardless of the surface and location, be it savannas, deserts, sand, or a road. The machine is the combination of the natural human mind and mechanical strength. Thus, the device complements the soldier and is safe and reliable for him. Besides, it performs the role of transportation to the place that usual vehicles are not able to reach. Supplied with the necessary equipment, the suit can save lives in some dangerous situations. As a result, the use of the exoskeleton suit is not limited to army forces; it is also used in civilian life by firefighters, rescuers, and other emergency workers. It is easier for people in related positions to rely on a machine, not only on their physical and mental characteristics (Yang et al. 3). Furthermore, the ability to carry things provides benefits to manufacturing and construction industries since it makes the work less harmful to humans well-being and improves efficiency. Similarly, the technology reduced the time needed to teach the soldiers or workers.
Nowadays scientists started to test the suit for rehabilitation and disability purposes. Patients with weak or paralyzed limbs got an opportunity to move with a help of wearable robotics. Dr. Karen Nolan admits that the exoskeleton helps patients after stroke (Robotics for Stroke Rehabilitation). As a rule, they suffer from one side paralysis and learn how to walk again. Since their recovery takes much time, patience and strength from the patients and their families as well as from medical staff are required. The standing-up position of the human body is necessary for its effective functioning since it influences human reproductive, circulatory, nervous, and other systems. People with paralysis of half of the body have difficulties maintaining their balance moving their legs and taking full steps correctly. Dr. Nolan researched the classical rehabilitation process and compared it to the one using Ekso GT exoskeleton as a tool. As a result, she stated that the moves of the patient improved faster and more properly with the device engaging less nurse or other physician involvement. Moreover, she encourages the cooperation between technicians, medical workers, and patients to find the application of exosuits for other disorders as well. (Robotics for Stroke Rehabilitation). Cerebral palsy is a movement disorder since early childhood because of bending in the knee. The National Institute of Health tried to use leg exoskeletons for the children and after seven trials found that they help children to stand and walk without additional assistance. The researchers will continue to check if the natural walking ability will be possible after such rehabilitation (LeFebvre). Nevertheless, the children with the disease and their parents could improve their lives.
Above all, the other sphere that allows exoskeletons is sports. Disabled runners of some marathons can wear suits to compete with others. Since permission is given, the regulations for competitions need to be settled and the separation of mechanical and casual sportsmen done (Greenbaum 236). For instance, knee exoskeletons are provided for ski lovers who due to their age or disability cannot move as fast as needed. Moreover, these models can be utilized by individual users just for their ski hobby(Again). They are of various trademarks with different features and can improve the quality of living and spending time outdoors.
Together with virtual reality technology, exoskeletons are used in gaming. For instance, it helps the players to feel them walking, shooting, and touching the objects. The variety of such games may be huge but the involved companies are still working on the construction, features, and market policy (Marinov). The gaming industry is thriving now and is open to new projects like this one. Moreover, the adaptation of the suit to the human body may help other industries to find new usage for the exoskeleton.
Ethical issues in military and construction industries
Replacing human workers with robotics can lead to the dehumanization of military and construction industries. Therefore, the command officers would supervise not the soldiers but rather robots able to participate in hot war areas with different climates and relief conditions. Moreover, their physical and mental health would not be so important to their commanding officers. However, since the operators in exoskeletons would work on unusual working occasions they may need even more moral relaxation than others. Furthermore, the government could reduce their retirement age and increase the costs of mental health rehabilitation for them and their families. As a result, the new legal regulation for responsible use of wearable suits needs to be written and discussed (Greenbaum 236). Consequently, it will provide people with an opportunity to benefit from exoskeletons without becoming robots.
Ethics of the use of exoskeletons in rehabilitation
With numerous advantages for the disabled and ill people, the exoskeletons have some limitations and cannot be used by everybody to challenge discrimination. The devices have weight, height, age, and health state requirements. For example, ReWalk technology can be used by people who are between 18 and 65 years old, with the type of spinal cord injury between C6 and T12, height 150-190 cm, weight less than 100 kg, enough mobility and great strength in the upper body to wear the exosuit (Ferraresi and Quaglia 760). Thus, those with a full paralyzed body, whose upper limbs are not strong enough, obese people, and others who do not meet the standards will not have the opportunity to use it. Moreover, there are the same technologies for children however, since they are developing very fast, the suit needs to be changed over a lifetime. Consequently, the financial issue rises. The access of the exoskeletons to people, especially the disabled is a tough question to solve. The expensive robotic suit is not to be covered by the insurance, and probably will never be. If companies will let their clients meet the exoskeletons cost, the question about its right and possibility occurs. Therefore, insurance and medical companies together with social workers need to discuss the accessibility policy. All the research during the last decades has been conducted with limited participants, hence few facts prove the efficiency and safety of an exosuit regarding others. For instance, the new rehabilitation policy that presupposes a combination of the exoskeleton and virtual reality was established based on the reaction of eight patients who are completely paralyzed (Brokaw). Although the results are tangible since all of the participants experienced improvements in muscle function, it cannot be recommended for a wide community. Moreover, the long-term impact on the health and well-being of the patient is not explored as well. In numerous experiments, patients used the device only for an hour since wearing the suit for a long time may not have a positive lasting influence on the human body. In addition, daily use may not be possible because of the battery of the device that needs to be charged every 6 hours. Besides, as a computer, the exoskeleton may have malfunctions or breakdowns which will bring other problems into one’s life. Thus, the question arises, of whether it is just money spending or if there is any guarantee it would not have a bad influence on the human skeleton.
Changes in human behavior
Technology can influence the lifestyle and employment of the disabled. However, social justice is examined only in the case of his or her financial well-being. Globally, such division may lead to a separation of society into enhanced and non-enhanced, meaning those who can afford the device and who cannot. Furthermore, people who are defined as able nowadays will become disabled following the transhumanist ideas since they do not change the image of the body. Since they will not afford the exoskeleton, they will not fit the new standards of the body (Sadowski 5). Future provides new possibilities which usually challenge the possible consequences and may be avoided. In addition, constant use prompts a dependency on the exoskeleton and a bad feeling after stopping using it. The reasons for this are financial issues, changes in the health state, device disorders, and others. Besides, the user may have psychosocial problems, namely desperation, and unacceptance of the body. Thus, society is not ready to wear the suit as an accessory. However, it is different from the situation with a wheelchair, since there are no legal regulations and rules to use them.
Different religious writings claim that God created a human. However, if looking at the exoskeleton partly as a humanized robotics, the beliefs may be disproved, since each company that produces the exoskeletons promotes its name and the wearable suit as its creation. Christians believe that if the person has a disease or disability, this is God’s message to them about their bad behavior and sins they had committed. However, a disabled person can now be rewarded with this technology for full participation in social life equally to healthy people. They will not be punished by God on Earth and from a transhumanism point of view, they will be superhuman with more abilities. Believers consider the human body as a sacred spirit in physical denunciation made from God’s image. Thus, the application of technologies as a part of people’s bodies is questionable. However, these issues are not considered as the church’s refusal of the exoskeleton, since there is no direct citation from the Bible to prove that. People themselves choose whether to wear the device based on their individual opinion and beliefs. Each person is free to decide what God’s rule is and what is a human right.
The exoskeleton appeared in the technological world to help people in construction and military industries. Moreover, a social use in medicine, sports, and gaming was found. However, the most useful purpose of its utilization is the rehabilitation process. As a rule, new things become the topic of discussion in ethics and religion, including wearable robotics as well. On the other hand, an operator may be treated as a robot, not a human. Therefore, commanding officers and foremen on the building will give more work during more hours. As a result, the human sources will be tired and will need a longer recovery. Transhumanism in society is developing; hence not having the exoskeleton may be understood as a disability of people who have not changed their bodies. The religious human’s similarity with God will be lost. Consequently, the main advantage of wearable robotics should be the increased opportunities to help the disabled live with all advantages and fully participate in social life.