The exoskeleton to “repair” man or to “increase” it?

“Exoskeletons are mechanical structures adapted to the human body which provide physical assistance to individuals by reducing muscle strain”, explains Jean-Jacques Atain-Kouadio, assistance expert at the Occupational Health and Safety Institute. Some soldiers are now equipped – just like some fire brigades – the idea being to be helped to carry heavy loads on difficult terrain. But that’s not all, the exoskeleton could well revolutionize the care of paraplegic people. By offering them, this time, walking assistance.

Finally, these external skeletons have recently arrived in companies – particularly in the construction, industrial, logistics, handling sectors, etc. “The idea here is to prevent the onset of musculoskeletal disorders, or tominute “, continues Jean-Jacques Atain-Kouadio. Who calls, however, not to resort to it immediately: “First and foremost, we have to think about reducing risk factors, organizing work, etc. The exoskeleton should only intervene as a last option. “

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Is this a sector of the future? Without a doubt. And even more given the evolutions that are looming. Because if the current exoskeletons still look like massive armor, they should, in the future, be lighter, more flexible and close to the body. In short, to be real smart clothes. Unsurprisingly, Americans, Japanese, Israelis and also French people are now investing in the sector: the global exoskeleton market – today estimated at 2.6 million units – could weigh more than $ 3 billion in 2025.

A simple tool?

What, however, of the ethical implications surrounding this innovation? With the exoskeleton, are we only “repairing” man or are we not already, without admitting it, in the process of “increasing” it? The answer is not obvious.

Illustration with soldiers. Unlike paraplegics – for whom the installation of an external skeleton is clearly a “repair-cure” – the soldier is in perfect health: the equipment clearly aims to increase his natural capacities of endurance and resistance. . Augmented man, then? Not that easy… “We can also see this equipment as a means of preventing the risk of wear and tear of the soldier”, answers Jean-Jacques Atain-Kouadio.

For the philosopher Jean-Michel Besnier, “The exoskeleton extends the body and can therefore be considered as a tool, a simple tool”. To hear it, we do not pour into the augmented man there but, rather, “In increasing performance thanks to the tool”. From when do we switch to transhumanism?

“When the technique is no longer geared towards controlling the environment but aims at transforming the human being himself. “ However, according to him, nothing like the exoskeleton as it exists today. “It helps the nurse to carry a patient, the handler not to strain his back or the soldier to climb a steep slope… Nothing that does not modify our human nature”, adds the philosopher.

A Trojan horse of transhumanism

No transhumanist inclinations on the horizon? To have. The “new generation” exoskeletons could well upset the human-machine interface. Prototypes currently being tested allow quadriplegic people to control the movements of their exoskeleton thanks to a neuroprosthesis implanted in sensorimotor areas of the brain. A major advance that could, in the long term, allow paralyzed people to regain their mobility thanks to mental piloting.

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A risk too. “This kind of innovation responds to a totally legitimate need on the part of people with disabilities, recognizes the philosopher. But what can this lead to, then? Downloading the brain, as the transhumanists dream of it. “ Pure fantasy, you would say. Not sure… Facebook bought, two years ago, CTRL-Labs, a New York start-up working on the connected brain. “Health – and more specifically compensation for disability – is the Trojan horse of transhumanism”, he warns.

How to navigate between, on the one hand, the emancipatory tool and, on the other, the technology likely to alter our very humanity? “You have to put the cursor between the most and the worst. And, I admit, it’s very complex ”, concedes Jean-Marie Besnier. For those who are struggling to find their way between the blissful enthusiasm of transhumanists and the lamentations of the technophobic camp, a word of advice: reread Orwell. He said : “When someone presents me with something like progress, I wonder above all whether it makes us more human or less human. “


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