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Whether robots will displace people from the jobs market or make them more productive is one of the most important economic questions of the 21st century. There’s some early evidence that the latter will be true – but if robotics does enhance the productivity of human workers, it may be in a surprisingly direct manner.

Before long, millions of workers might not just find themselves working alongside robots (as many already do, of course), but inside them.

In a piece for MIT Technology Review, Will Knight reports on the onward march of the exoskeletons – which you can think of as machines that you wear:

“The Japanese company Panasonic announced recently that it will start selling an exoskeleton designed to help workers lift and carry objects more easily and with less risk of injury. The suit was developed in collaboration with a subsidiary company called ActiveLink. It weighs just over 13 pounds and attaches to the back, thighs, and feet, enabling the wearer to carry 33 pounds of extra load. The device has been tested by warehouse handlers in Osaka, Japan, and is currently in trials with forestry workers in the region.”

This isn’t the only exoskeleton product currently on the market:

“Panasonic’s device is among a small but growing number of exoskeletons available commercially—less fantastic and more cumbersome versions of a technology that’s been a staple of science fiction for some time. Though they have mainly been tested in medical and military settings, the technology is starting to move beyond these use niches, and it could make a difference for many manual laborers, especially as the workforce ages.”

As with other emerging technologies like self-driving cars, we ought think ahead twenty years and consider the implications.

The concept of retirement rests in part upon the assumption that as we get older we get physically weaker. Despite the rise of the desk job, manual occupations still account for much of the jobs market – a fact that has held back efforts to push up the retirement age. A future full of mechanically enhanced geriatrics could remove that restraint.

It’s not just brute strength that this technology could help us with:

“In collaboration with ergonomics researchers at the Technical University of Munich, the German carmaker BMW has given workers a custom-made, 3-D-printed orthotic device that fits over the thumb and helps them perform repetitive tasks.”

Fans of Doctor Who will no doubt be thinking of the Cybermen by now – a race of mechanical monsters who started off as people, but enhanced themselves bit-by-bit until they were nothing but machines. Yet for all the sinister images evoked by exoskeleton technology, the potential benefits are enormous – not least for the disabled:

“Exoskeletons have found commercial traction for rehabilitation and as walking aids. Earlier this week, a company called ReWalk, based in Marlborough, Massachusetts, announced the latest version of its device for people with spinal-cord injuries.”

To re-iterate: this is no longer science fiction, this is a technology that is already producing commercial products and which can only improve year-by-year in sophistication, affordability and wearability.

Used wisely, exoskeletons will eliminate the age-old strength disparities between young and old, men and women, abled-bodied and disabled. It will be fascinating to see how this changes our culture and prejudices.

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