By 2040 it is predicted that 1 in 7 people in the UK will be over 75, placing a significant strain on the economy. Currently the social security and health spending associated with old age accounts for over 40% of their respective budgets. This is likely to increase as the population ages, which is likely to cause other issues including an increase in mental health issues such as loneliness. One solution to mitigate this effect could be the use of an assistive exoskeleton among older workers. Recently, Ford has used exoskeletons to boost worker performance by assisting them in physical tasks. This could enable a more productive and durable workforce. However, such a disruptive use of the technology could cause both positive and negative societal change.
Increase Happiness! Increase Wealth!
Developed, services-based economies exhibit an older average population, leaving labour intensive industries with worker shortages. An aging population would result in increased government spending, particularly on pensions and healthcare. The worker shortages could force these industries to be taken over by developing countries with larger, lower cost human resources, leaving low skilled labourers in developed countries jobless, reducing overall GDP. Exoskeleton suits allow the body to maintain physical performance, thereby increasing the workforce by allowing employees to retire later, leading to greater economic output and thus reducing the strain on the economy caused by the elderly. This has the potential to increase the overall happiness of individuals within society, which from a utilitarian standpoint can be considered ethical.
The Office for National Statistics shows that older demographics are more susceptible to mental health issues. Advances in medicine, have resulted in individuals living longer albeit with a reduced quality of life. The NHS states that hundreds of thousands of the elderly are cut off from society and experience loneliness. By using an exoskeleton to gain access to working opportunities the elderly population can become more mobile and increase their social interactions thereby improving their quality of life and mental health. Another main benefit of an exoskeleton supported workforce is reducing the risk of employee injury and long-term fatigue on the body caused by manual labour. Exoskeletons applied in manual labour driven industries reduce the strain on the workers’ bodies by encouraging the correct form when lifting heavy objects and reducing loads whilst the body is in compromising positions. This is particularly applicable for the elderly who have reduced physical ability. The technology could also mitigate the risk of injury caused by unscrupulous companies over-exploiting employees, who otherwise could find themselves out of work with little support for chronic issues. The exoskeleton provides a simple clear-cut solution, especially with additional legislation, the suit could act as further layer of protective equipment for employees’ bodies.
Increase Exploitation! Increase Injuries!
While there are clear benefits, there are also negative consequences. When used for the elderly there are many beneficiaries, raising the question of who should pay for the exoskeletons. If employees who directly benefit from working longer are responsible, it can be argued that low-skilled employees have the most to lose, as the technology may be unaffordable. On the other hand, if companies are responsible, then large corporations with greater resources would have a competitive advantage. This could result in SMEs, which local communities often rely on, becoming bankrupt. This would be detrimental to society and the well-being of local populations. The government benefits through raised pension ages and reduced social care costs resulting in conflicts of interest. This could lead to regulatory changes that exploit rather than avoid the potential negative consequences of the introduction of exoskeletons, thus reducing the wellbeing of those who do not qualify for the suits. These changes could be decided at the whims of those in power, particularly in the UK where governments tend to dominate the proceedings of parliament.
History shows that increases in the working age results in a raise in the state pension age. The current proposal by government is for the state pension age to increase to 68 by 2037-2039. The use of exoskeletons, prolonging the working age, is likely to cause more rapid rises in the future as people are physically able to work longer. For the less wealthy, a continuation of work in the later stages of life would be the only method to sustain an income. For the majority of workers, late retirement has been shown to negatively affect mental health, and with exoskeletons prolonging the working age, it is likely to also prove detrimental. So while in some respects happiness can be improved there is potential for a decrease in happiness particularly for lower income groups, who are most affected.
While the use of exoskeletons would reduce the risk of injury by encouraging correct lifting technique, any injuries obtained while wearing the exoskeleton would be much more severe. Ford’s EksoVests can offer load assistance of up to 6.8kg per arm, if these suits fail the injury sustained by the user would be more severe due to abnormal loading conditions. Instead of reducing chronic conditions, exoskeletons could potentially cause more severe injuries. This raises questions as to who is liable for these injuries: the exoskeleton manufacturer, the employers or the employees.
As the technology improves, it is likely that rather than solely allowing workers to work for longer, it would eventually allow for increases in productivity. Particularly in profit-driven companies where the suit’s additional productivity could allow them to exploit low-skilled workers further, particularly if wages are not increased as the additional income from productivity would drive up company profits rather than benefiting workers. From a Labour Theory of Value perspective, increasing the wages could be considered unethical as those who don’t qualify for suits would be at a disadvantage despite expending the same effort. The intentions for the introduction of exoskeletons is also relevant. If it is intended to increase the profits of corporations rather than the well-being of employees, it can be argued to have weak ethical basis.
We support the use of exoskeletons with caveats including regulations to prevent exploitation.