A staple of science fiction, an exoskeleton is a powered frame that attaches to the body to provide support and strength. The movie Live, Die Repeat: Edge of Tomorrow featured combat exoskeletons as does the video game Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare. These fictional devices allow combatants to run faster and longer while carrying heavier loads, giving them an advantage in combat. There are also peaceful applications of the technology, such as allowing people with injuries to walk and augmenting human abilities for the workplace. For those concerned with fine details of nerdiness, exoskeletons should not be confused with cybernetic parts (these fully replace body parts, such as limbs or eyes) or powered armor (like that used in the novel Starship Troopers and by Iron Man).
As with almost any new technology, the development of exoskeletons raises some ethical questions. Fortunately for addressing these questions, humans have been using technological enhancements since we started being human, so this is old and familiar territory. Noel Sharkey raises one moral concern, namely that “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.” His proposed solution is an exoskeleton that switches off after six hours.
This same sort of problem arose, obviously enough, when humans developed much earlier technology that allowed people to work physically for a long time. For example, the development of factory and farming equipment allowed people to do what was once heavy labor with far greater ease, enabling them to work even longer hours. Technology has made the labor even easier—for example, a worker can drive a high-tech farm combine as easily as driving a car. Closer analogies to exoskeletons include such things as fork-lifts and cranes: a person can operate those to easily lift heavy loads that would exhaust (or be impossible for) people just using their muscles. As such, Sharkey’s concern would also apply to the forklift—a person could drive one around for six hours and not be very tired physically, yet mentally tired. As such, whatever moral solutions that apply to the problem of forklifts would also apply to exoskeletons.
Mental overwork is also, obviously enough, not a problem limited to exoskeletons in particular or technology in general. After all, many jobs today are not very physically tiring, and people can keep at writing legal briefs, teaching classes and managing workers to the point that they are mentally exhausted but not physically exhausted.
For those who consider such overwork to be undesirable, the solution lies in workplace regulation or the hope that employers will do the right thing on their own. If there were not regulations protecting workers from being overworked, in the future employers would presumably simply either buy exoskeletons without timers or develop work-arounds, such as resetting timers.
Also, exoskeletons themselves do not get tired, so putting a timer on an exoskeleton would be like putting a use timer on a forklift at a warehouse. Doing so would reduce the value of the equipment, since it could not be used by multiple shifts. As such, that sort of timer system would be unfair to the employers—they would be paying for equipment that could be used round the clock, but only able to use it for a limited time each day. Of course, there could be a system in place so that the timer is linked to the worker—the exoskeleton would still work for a worker that had not worked six hours. This, however, still creates some obvious problems about incorporating work limits into hardware rather than by using regulation and policy about the limits of work. In any case, while exoskeletons would be new in the workplace, they would not add anything new to the moral landscape—technology that allows workers to be mentally overworked while not being physically overworked is nothing new and existing solutions can be applied when exoskeletons become part of the workplace, just as was done when forklifts were introduced.