Industries are changing, and they’re changing rapidly. Some still bury their heads in the sand and maintain that automation is not a threat, but the writing is on the wall.
Among the companies looking to augment the way they’re workers operate is non-other than the massive American car manufacturer Ford. Ford has begun to outfit small portions of their assembly line worker population with exoskeletons. These mechanical exoskeletons are being introduced in an effort to combat fatigue in workers who operate through thousands of repetitious body movements each day.
Although the technology is just now being utilized on the shop floor, the concept of exoskeleton-assisted movement goes back decades – and stretches far into the future. With machine-assisted movement, the wearer of the exoskeleton can drastically reduce the energy expenditure needed through each exertion, helping reduce wear and tear on cartilage and joints, and return to work the next day without being utterly physically debilitated.
While exoskeletons can serve many medical purposes as well – such as giving paralyzed patients the opportunity to walk again, a portent of things to come lurks over the manufacturing industry.
As exoskeletons are engineered with human movement in mind, it is not far out of the realm of possibility to image that a rig could be easily fitted with software that tracks, maps, and stores all data that the operator makes.
We can then assume that this acquired data could be mapped onto a fully-mechanical and robotic bipedal body and programmed to repeat the same motions as the former human operator did – and voila, no need to employ those pesky fleshbags that demand things such as “worker’s right” and “time off”.
Although it’s not on the table quite yet, the problems that automation brings are wide and numerous – chief among them being what precisely qualifies as “human work” and “robot work”. There’s no hiding that many industries rely on assembly lines of robotic workers to do everything from sorting out the latest batch of product to welding and grafting incredibly complex assignments – and they do all of those activities at a speed and precision far above what a human is capable of.
Exoskeletons won’t mean the end of an employed population, but they’ll certainly be one large step in that direction. God forbid we ever uncover how to replace our limbs with better prosthetic models, or we’ll see worker and class warfare the likes of which belongs more in a Deus Ex spin-off than in our own reality.
Thus far, the exoskeleton models available for purchase do little other than minimize fatigue through standard activities, but given a few years and some R&D, and it’s not out of the realm of possibility to see models made to enhance human motion beyond anything that we’re currently capable of, and that’s something that must be monitored.
We’re not saying Iron Man is coming down the pipeline here folks – but we’re also not discrediting the notion entirely.