So I’ve been checking out the latest trends in exoskeletons these days. Who isn’t?
An exoskeleton is simply a structure or framework that is external to the person using it. Bones on the outside, not the inside. Think Tony Stark in the cave scene of Iron Man…without the power chords (or power cords).
You see exoskeletons every time you watch an ant colony go to work, or when you stroll past a grasshopper that clumsily plops on the tree trunk. The hard outside keeps the bug guts on the inside. Only on rare occasions, however, do you find a human who is using an exoskeleton, usually an awkward combination of metal bars and hinges running down the legs à la young Forrest Gump. Polio and muscular dystrophy, for example, break down a body until it’s forced to use external structural aids to keep the body upright. But if technology continues to roll in advances at break-neck speed, perhaps these wearable devices will mitigate the restrictions of such ailments as a relic of the past. Perhaps these prosthetics will afford the paraplegic a modern-day medical miracle.
So who is developing these technologies, and for what purpose?
The usual suspects have lined up in an orderly fashion:
- The idealists: Exoskeleton suits are being manufactured by several tech companies (e.g., Ekso, ReWalk and SuitX) with the expressed goal of giving motion to those who have mobility problems. For example, a soldier is paralyzed while serving his country, then, through the use of such a contraption…boom, human ingenuity and will strike back. Stroke victims, accident victims, even our elderly – the list of possible beneficiaries is a mile long.
- The gamers: The Teslasuit (not connected to the car company) is a wearable, full body suit that allows gamers to feel electronic pulses that coincide with virtual reality gaming experience. Now, when you see an explosion, you feel the heat. When you walk into a gunfight, the consequences of poor cover means a slight feeling of pain as virtual 9mm rounds ‘hit’ you. Not really a skeleton per se, but certainly a second skin.
- The sex industry: If the Teslasuit is an emerging market for gamers, just imagine what an easy step it will be for the pornography industry. Virtual sex already has real-life, multi-sensory experiences available for subscription fee; just point and click. In ten years’ time, however, the customization packages for individual clients will be staggering—and society won’t know how to cope with a radically new sexual ethic…one that involves the full feeling of sex without actual bodies touching.
- The military-industrial complex: Exoskeleton technology is being actively funded by DARPA (footnote) in an attempt to create soldiers that can haul great loads with normal human effort…whether those loads are bodies, bullets, boxes or bombs. Just because something is developed in the military does not automatically ascribe some sort of nefarious quality to the developer’s motive. In other words, war is two-sided. You must kill the other person while preserving your own; it is both life-saving and life-taking depending on the context.
What can we expect in the future? A birds-eye view of the emerging trends in technology would be a wise move. They are actually stronger than trends, but probably weaker than ‘rules.’ Here they are:
- Trend #1: Technologies tend to get smaller, leaner, and more efficient.
- Trend #2: Power sources double in strength every 18 months.
- Trend #3: Technologies seek to become more invisible with each improvement.
- Trend #4: Every technological advance drives the price down on earlier models; exoskeletons will only be a product of the rich for a short time.
Exoskeleton technology bucks the trend in at least one noticeable way. Companies that specialize in body-altering technologies are increasingly moving exterior to interior. In other words, their work seeks an answer to Trend #3 by placing the technologies inside their bodies, not outside. Exoskeletons, in their present form, augment a person’s strength by the use of external structures and external power sources. But, is it that far of a stretch to think that tech companies are looking into ways that bring these structures inward? It sounds like X-Men territory, but consider we already have the widespread use of plates, screws, and pins for those who need skeletal support. I’m looking at your collarbone, Tony Romo!
If these above rules/trends actually work in the case of exoskeletons, we may be within a decade of people walking by us on the street—people who are actually paralyzed from the waist down—and we would never know. The wounded warrior returns to being John. The paralyzed neighbor in apartment 3B returns to being Sarah. These techs paradoxically afford people the ability to be normal once again, seen for their personality and not their paralysis.
Of course, we must temper our optimism at this point and offer up some prolonged, difficult engagement with the (perhaps) undesired consequences of such opportunities. Like all products, tech development is driven by profit. An individual designer simply cannot proceed with his/her research unless it is funded by an outside source that sees long-term market viability. That’s code for: They want to make money. The surest bet to make money is to tap into the markets I mentioned above: gaming, sex, and war. Each of these industries have huge cultural import; they imperceptibly lead us to view the world in a certain way.
What would the widespread use of affordable exoskeletons do to us, as a species? First, I guarantee you’ve never been asked that question before, so welcome to my strange world of hypotheticals. Consider yourself on the cutting edge of virtuous prognosticating. Second, I don’t know. I’m not sure that it will do anything to our human nature…though it might actually reflect or reinforce some latent beliefs that are already there–at least in the scientific community.
“We see the world of robotics as having a giant wave of human augmentation.” This is from Nate Harding, chief exec and co-founder of Ekso Bionics. It’s hard to see technology as a neutral tool when you hear such phrases. Each technology we accept has the potential to change what we value in the world and what we cast off as secondary—or even worse, as obsolete.
“Each technology we accept has the potential to change what we value in the world and what we cast off as secondary—or even worse, as obsolete.”
My wife and I have been battling through the easy-yet-so-hard question of: ‘Why does my body matter?’ This type of technology forces us to make decisions about the nature of our structural selves, whether our bodies are a thing to be overcome (transcendence) or an essential feature of the physical-spiritual creatures we call homo sapiens. Perhaps an either-or distinction is not helpful and it’s some mix of the two. My body matters as it is, yet I still think my decision to have LASIK surgery on my eyes was a decision made in Christian freedom. Why?
I tend to think that external body modifiers are, on the whole, a good thing. A very good thing, in certain regards. My quarrel with body technologies comes when two conditions are present together: 1) they move interior to the body itself (as in ‘under the skin’), and 2) when they allow a person to exceed the ability of a normal functioning human to something extraordinary. In such an instance, I would quickly question whether or not the actual humanity of the person is being modified past God’s intentions for his creature.
In the present discussion, maybe exoskeletons, insofar as they are still exo-, are good and fruitful contributions to society. I am, for the time-being, restricting myself from commenting on the dangerous iterations that will emerge from the sex and military industries, respectively.
Help from the outside (from the exo-, if you will) is not something to be summarily condemned, even if it does call into question the relationship we have with our technologies. Were we not created, sustained, redeemed, and loved by a God who exists external to the created universe?
© Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.