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Is the augmented workforce coming to New Zealand?

From the iconic Power Loader suit worn by Sigourney Weaver in Alien to the more recent depiction of Robert Downey Jr. flying around in armour as Iron Man, Hollywood has long used exosuits to transform ordinary humans into augmented, super-powerful beings who save the world. But Hollywood glitz and glamour aside, exosuits are proving to be an incredibly useful edition to workforces around the world, from rehabilitation to manual labour. So, what has the uptake for this once-fictitious innovation been like in New Zealand? And how can we as a country shape the future use of them to benefit as many people as possible? Anna and Kelly Pendergrast investigate.

If you ever find yourself in a hand-to-hand combat situation with a malicious alien species, your puny human body is likely to take a beating.

Science fiction teaches us that we’re more likely to survive interplanetary warfare if we gird our weak flesh with some heavy duty wearables. Enter: the exosuit. An exosuit or exoskeleton is a piece of high-tech scaffolding or mechanical armour that enhances the ability of its wearer.

In Ridley Scott’s Aliens, Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley fights the Xenomorph Queen while wearing Power Loader, an exosuit designed as a wearable forklift for loading cargo on and off spaceships.

More recently, 2014’s Edge of Tomorrow features Tom Cruise as the less-than-memorably named Major William Cage slowly mastering the a weaponised exosuit that helps him stand up to those alien bullies. The suit is initially painful and clunky for Cage, but through much practice and repetition, the exosuit becomes an extension of his body, providing extra strength, firepower and assistance in kicking alien ass.

If you can imagine it, it’s probably in development. Exosuits, both powered and unpowered, have been a real-world phenomena for over half a century now.

This year, exosuits are starting to bleed their way into public consciousness beyond the cinema screen, as science fiction becomes science fact.

The Ford Motor Company and BMW both made significant investments in commercial exosuits for their factory workers in the past year, equipping them with mechanical arm and shoulder supports that look like they could be ripped from the movies.

Other companies in the United States and beyond are starting to follow suit, upping the demand for these futuristic-looking devices. Is this a case of life imitating art?

Not really. As Donna Haraway, author of the influential A Cyborg Manifesto writes, “the boundary between science fiction and social reality is an optical illusion”. If you can imagine it, it’s probably in development. Exosuits, both powered and unpowered, have been a real-world phenomena for over half a century now.

In the late 1960s, General Electric – funded by the US military – developed the Hardiman, a powered exoskeleton that enabled its wearer to lift over 630kg. The suit bears some visual similarities with Ripley’s Power Loader, enveloping its wearer with larger-than-life rigid metal appendages.

The Hardiman ultimately proved unsuccessful, as its violent uncontrollable motion meant it was never turned on with a person inside.

This huge machine contrasts quite starkly with more recent military exosuits like Lockheed Martin’s Onyx, a lower body powered exoskeleton that resembles a souped-up harness and leg brace combo. Unlike the Hardiman, which aimed to give the wearer super-human strength, the Onyx and its recent predecessors are more modest in their goals, aiming to help soldiers carry more weight over longer distances and uneven terrain.

Closer to home, one New Zealand company has been a quiet pioneer in exosuit development, but for a very different purpose. Rex Bionics and its namesake exosuit, the Rex, focus on rehabilitation for people with mobility impairments and neurological conditions.

Robert Irving co-founded Rex Bionics after receiving a multiple sclerosis diagnosis and realising that “the chances of a wheelchair in my future were pretty high”.

Initially looking to create a set of ‘robotic legs’, Irving, with his co-founder Richard Little, spent years creating a prototype, before finding investors and launching Rex Bionics.

The real impact of exosuit technology is likely to be closer to the Power Loader’s original purpose: to help humans load heavy cargo all day without getting tired or injured.

After trials, it became clear that the Rex was even more beneficial in a rehabilitation context than as a day-to-day wheelchair replacement. Ten years later, the self-moving computerised lower-body robotic suit found can be found in rehab facilities in a number of countries including New Zealand, Australia and the United Kingdom.

The impressive results from neurophysiotherapy trials show, says Irving, “what the brain and body can actually do for itself if it’s primed in the correct way". Instead of functioning as ‘robotic legs’, the Rex provides a more complex model of human-machine interaction that augments the user’s existing abilities while helping their body to strengthen or heal.

For most of us civilians, the worlds of high-tech warfare and futuristic rehabilitation exosuits are unlikely to have much impact on our daily experience. The Rex has great possibilities for people with neurological conditions, a vital service but one that is focused on a specific segment of the population.

And while Ripley facing down the Alien Queen in her Power Loader suit is a scene for the ages, the need to undertake alien-human combat seems like an improbable fate for most of us. But let’s not leave Ripley just yet.

The real impact of exosuit technology is likely to be closer to the Power Loader’s original purpose: to help humans load heavy cargo all day without getting tired or injured. Beyond the battlefield and the rehabilitation centre, exosuits are on the verge of entering our workplaces, in a big way. Sexy? Not really. Life changing? For sure.

Getting down to work

Industrial exosuits have been in the works for years. But as with defence and medical exosuits, it’s taken time and iteration to iron out the kinks. Figuring out weight to strength ratios, ensuring wearer comfort and finding a palatable price point have been complex tasks, keeping exosuits from entering the mass market until recently. But now, the tide may finally have turned: in the past 18 months, both BMW and Ford made significant purchases of EksoVest upper body exosuits for use by their auto-assembly workers.

Ford announced its exosuit investment in a high profile August press release, stating that they were introducing the devices to 15 plants worldwide, following earlier testing. These non-powered exosuits, developed by San Francisco Bay Area company Ekso Bionics, elevate and support workers’ arms while they work on tasks at chest height or above.

Car assembly is a labour-intensive task, with many workers lifting their hands above head-level over 4,600 times a day, leading to discomfort, strain, or injury for many. Ford’s initial purchase of 75 EksoVests might seem like small potatoes given Ford’s many thousands of employees.

However, the public announcement (and its resulting 26 percent increase in stock prices) was a signal that some big companies are ready to jump on the exosuit bandwagon. With the combination of improved technology and public corporate commitments, researchers and industry experts predict a major surge in exosuit popularity over the next few years.

As exosuits start to find their way into manufacturing and industry settings across the world, they’ve been slower – with the exception of the Rex – to find their way into New Zealand workplaces.

Word is getting out, though, and New Zealand businesses are starting to consider their potential. In July, Berkeley-based exosuit pioneer Dr Homayoon Kazerooni presented on exosuits and disruptive technologies to delegates at WoodTech, an Australasian timber and wood industry conference.

Kazerooni’s talk stirred up some interest, with at least one mill operator saying they could see health and safety uses for the exosuit in their plant. Nathan Stantiall of Callaghan Innovation, the government’s innovation agency, predicts that we’ll see non-powered exosuits, such as those made by Kazerooni’s company SuitX, having multiple applications in New Zealand in the near future.

But Stantiall is quick to note that technology shouldn’t be adopted for the sake of it: “tech for tech’s sake” is likely to fail. But when there’s a problem in need of a solution, he says, “you can’t lose”.

Harder, better, faster, stronger

Ford Motor Company, early adopters of industrial exosuits, have always been concerned with solving problems, especially as they relate to worker efficiency. Founder Henry Ford invented the modern assembly line, pioneering and refining industrial auto production at the beginning of the 20th century, enabling unskilled workers to produce complex goods using specialised tools and repeated tasks.

Endless industrial refinement didn’t end with Ford and his cohort. From the burger production line of McDonald’s to the sterile workshops of Foxconn, companies continue to tweak and modify worker’s physical movements for economic gains. Three-and-a-half swirls of special sauce. A new power drill 40 grams lighter than the previous version. Into this landscape, the exosuit could look like just another tool to eke out more productivity.

Indeed, affordable industrial exosuits promise to augment worker bodies and allow workers to produce more, better, and faster. Increasing productivity is no small matter, as Callaghan Innovation’s Stantiall points out, especially with New Zealand’s low labour productivity in comparison with other OECD countries.

What makes exosuits unusual is that they offer a solution that may be good for workers as well as for the owners of the means of production. While industrial standardisation and process refinement resulted in massive productivity gains, it came at a cost.

Human bodies aren’t designed to lift the same tool overhead thousands of times a day, week after week. Strain, discomfort, and worker injuries were the flipside of the 20th century manufacturing boom.

According to their creators, industrial exosuits offer a respite for worker bodies by reducing strain and harm from repeated movements. Of course, exosuits may displace strain from one part of the body to another, but ongoing iteration and ergonomic assessments should mitigate risk of harm and ensure any load transfer goes to the places on the body that are designed to carry it.

While fewer worker injuries would be undoubtedly good for companies, resulting in reduced insurance rates and fewer workers out sick, they could also make life better for workers.

Away from the factory floor or the construction site, the endurance and ease offered by exosuits could allow employees an increased quality of leisure time. Exosuit-equipped workers at Ford affirm this claim, saying they now have “more energy to play with my grandsons when I get home” or fewer aches and pains.

Kazerooni is insistent that improved quality of life is the core promise of exosuits. Across society, Kazerooni sees an increased focus on quality of life, and he wants to ensure the working class aren’t left out of this equation.

“I have a soft spot in my heart for workers,” he says. They put their bodies on the line “in sometimes inhumane environments,” working eight to ten hours a day, creating profit for their employers.

In a world where technology and advanced logistics promise to deliver a dazzling array of consumer products directly to our doorstep almost instantaneously, it’s important to remember that human labour still undergirds these seemingly-magical systems.

“There’s a lot of tears and blood in moving around these boxes,” says Kazerooni.

As long as we desire convenient access to consumer goods and ever-increasing productivity rates, it seems like a no-brainer to ensure we’re also respecting the health of the bodies that make our economy possible.

As New Zealand strives to diversify its economy and forge its way through the rapid transitions of the 21st century, technologies like exosuits offer a new lens for innovation.

They show how we might increase productivity while also caring for the workers that drive our industries, and help us ensure a human-centered transition to an increasingly automated future.

Automation nation

But why bother investing in exosuits for workers when the entire future of work is so uncertain?

The fourth Industrial Revolution is upon us, says Dr Amy Fletcher, who works on science and technology issues at the University of Canterbury. She says we’re entering an era where “humans and machines, bio and cyber systems, are going be merging and cooperating”.

According to Callaghan Innovation’s prediction, up to 140,000 New Zealand manufacturing jobs are likely to be automated, resulting in job loss for some and dramatically different work tasks for others.

With automation taking over some tasks previously performed by manual labourers, and artificial intelligence (AI) taking over other tasks previously performed by white collar information workers, the workforce of the future is undoubtedly going to look very different. In this context of uncertainty, paying to equip labourers with cyborg-like exosuits might seem like an unnecessary expense and learning curve.

In a world where technology and advanced logistics promise to deliver a dazzling array of consumer products directly to our doorstep almost instantaneously, it’s important to remember that human labour still undergirds these seemingly-magical systems.

Dr Kazerooni doesn’t think so. Despite the excitement around automation technology, it takes time for technologies to develop into market-ready products, and in some industries we’re a long way from automation being a viable option.

“Robotic devices are going to be useful in very structured jobs,” he says, especially where extreme precision is required or the environment is dangerous for human workers. But “if you put a robot in an unstructured environment, it’s just ridiculous”.

The AI isn’t there yet. Humans, on the other hand, “are adaptable, they can make good decisions”, and can handle emergency situations. While automation and AI will eventually be developed to carry out many more dynamic tasks, there is still labour to be done in the meantime, while other roles are likely to remain human-led.

And as for the humans in question, Kazerooni argues that “you might as well equip people with more strength” with exosuits and other devices so they can work more efficiently and safely.

A number of New Zealand’s core industries have complex or unstructured work settings which will make full automation difficult, including farming, construction, and forestry.

These jobs could be candidates for the introduction of exosuits, particularly where repetitive strain injury and worker discomfort is a risk.

Shearers (some of whom already employ a low-tech form of support harness) could be equipped with back and thigh exosuits, reducing the strain from bending and lifting all day. Foresters might use an arm and shoulder support similar to the ones currently in use in automotive factories, to make it easier to lift and manoeuvre a heavy chainsaw.

For industries that provide engaging and varied work but have a reputation for backbreaking labour, exosuits might be a way to attract new entrants to the field.

Some of these manual jobs might be headed for increased automation in the long run, but in many cases the work is meaningful and enjoyable or requires human empathy, and automation might not be the ideal end goal.

Going beyond exosuits

Of course, it’s not just about exosuits. In this time of workforce flux, there are a myriad of ways that machines and humans might work together to improve quality of life, working conditions, and productivity.

This symbiotic relationship between humans and machines ranges across a spectrum. On the one end, devices that supplement or replace the human body (like cobots), through body augmentation like exosuits in the middle, to technologies that support or supplement the human mind on the other end (like AI and augmented reality).

Looking at New Zealand companies and workplaces, we can already see a variety of innovative technology applications that show the full spectrum of these interactions.

Cobots – or collaborative robots – are, as the name suggests, robots that are specifically designed to work alongside humans. They’re being integrated into a variety of workplaces, both here and overseas. Unlike earlier generations of robots that had to be inside cages or away from humans, cobots are safer and less disruptive to mixed human-robot workflows.

Callaghan Innovation supports the introduction of cobots, especially for tasks that are “dumb, dirty or dangerous,” the ‘3 D’s’ that are often pointed to as prime candidates for automation.

In some cases, the person who previously performed the tasks taken over by a cobot will be retrained to become the full-time handler or programmer for the cobot. Cobots aren’t just for the manufacturing space, however.

Dr Fletcher pinpoints the health sector as another area where we will see more machines interacting with humans, especially for eldercare. Companion robots can assist their elderly charges with movement and exercise, recording health data, and of course, “robots never forget that you need to take your medication”.

Other workplace technologies hold out the promise of automation that replaces bodies (like industrial robotics), or brains (like AI). The exosuit is perhaps a more humanist technology, which appears cyborg-like but has more in common with the wheelchair or the pacemaker than Iron Man.

At least one study has already been carried out in New Zealand to see whether robots can improve healthcare outcomes for elderly people, with early indications showing that patients were pretty thrilled with their new companions.

Closer to the brain-enhancing side of human-machine interaction, Callaghan Innovation’s Stantiall says augmented reality (AR) is another place where there’s lots of opportunities for humans and machine to work together.

Unlike exosuits or cobots, where machines physically support people, AR provides the user with a layer of information over the “real world”.

Its potential applications are broad, from providing real-time instructions for fixing or assembling complex machinery to helping kitchen staff put the perfect number of pickles on a burger.

While there have been attempts to bring AR into the mainstream to limited success (here’s looking at you, Google Glass), it appears to be getting more traction in workplaces. In early October, over $16 million in funding was awarded for a multi-stage project that will see augmented reality enter the New Zealand horticulture world.

The University of Auckland-led project aims to increase productivity in vineyards and orchards, where there are often labour shortages. The first stage includes equipping new vineyard workers with AR glasses that would train them in best practices for pruning and other skills, based on data collected from expert pruners.

Staying human-centric

How can New Zealand encourage more focus on robotics and technology that enhances the wellbeing of all Kiwis?

New Zealanders have a reputation for being innovative, and our small population and receptiveness to technology has made the country a frequent testing ground for new technologies or ways of doing business.

Rex Bionics’ Irving has seen firsthand how innovative New Zealanders can be.

“About 95 to 96 percent of the [Rex] machine is made in New Zealand,” he says, and many of their suppliers have worked with them since the beginning.

“If you look around you can get people to make things. There’s an awful lot of skill and talent, a willingness to figure it out.”

With New Zealand’s much-celebrated number eight wire mindset and appetite for trying new things, what else does New Zealand need to be a world leader in human-centred technological innovation?

For Dr Fletcher, more investment in science and technology is key.

“You’ve got a really good education system, you’ve got a lot of creative, innovative people. It seems to me that there’s got to be more investment.”

She points out that relative to most countries in the OECD, New Zealand is lagging behind.

Fletcher says it’s is not just the public sector’s responsibility, adding that “a venture capital industry that’s willing to take a bit more risk would be a good thing”. But even in a limited investment ecosystem, there are opportunities for businesses to innovate.

Callaghan Innovation’s Stantiall’s advice is to “think big, start small and fail fast”.

He says that implementing new technologies in small packages can mean less capital investment while enabling businesses to build confidence as they’re adapting the way they work.

Of course, even if businesses are ready to make investments in new technologies, it’s employees who will have to work alongside them, and potentially learn new ways of doing things as they go.

So, it’s important that businesses support their people, and help them develop the skills needed to work in a changing environment.

Dr Fletcher thinks it’s vital for education to keep up with the changing landscape.

“I don’t think everyone needs to be a computer programmer or an engineer, but I think that basic technological literacy and the confidence to engage in these discussions is pretty key for 21st century citizenship,” she says.

Exosuits and AI

Most of the industrial exosuits currently in use are mechanical: they don’t rely on computer or electronic components to function. They support workers’ bodies, but they don’t collect data. In the future, though, next generation exosuits could start collecting data about the people wearing them. Data could be analysed by AI to inform decisions about work targets and performance, or even to train robots. If or when exosuits begin to collect biometric data, we’ll be facing a whole new set of ethical issues:

Surveillance:

Collecting data from exosuits could make workers’ every movement digitally visible to their bosses. This surveillance power may result in workers self-regulating behaviour: you might be less likely to take a break if you know your bosses can monitor your movements and heart rate. Is it appropriate for companies to throw their workers into a digital panopticon? If not, it’s time to start thinking about how data should be used to surveill or incentivise workers.

Data ownership:

Who would benefit from, and have control of, the data collected from exosuits? The dominant model (think Uber) would put that data firmly in the hands of the corporation, who can use it as they please. However, new models are emerging. Here in New Zealand, Whare Hauora make it clear they’re the Kaitiaki (guardians) of the data collected from the homes where their sensors are, and ownership of the data stays with the whānau who live there.

Training the robots:

As the field of robotics advances and can carry out increasingly complex and irregular tasks, data collected from exosuit wearers could potentially be used to train AI robotic systems and eventually replace the workers. This would benefit companies, but not the workers whose labour provides the essential training data. Are there ways that workers can be compensated for the additional work of training the robots, or upskilled to fill new roles that appear as the result of new technologies?

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The future of not-just-work

While we’re discussing innovation and technology for a human-centred future in New Zealand, it’s tempting to focus only on work and the economy. But what about the rest of our lives?

Exosuits aim to increase strength and reduce fatigue for workers, but could they be used in a similar capacity for recreation, leisure, and sport? Outdoor activities and adventure sport are huge in New Zealand, and enjoyed by locals and tourists alike.

Imagine tramping with a lower body exosuit that lets you effortlessly carry a heavy pack and cover more kilometres without fatigue. Even better, perhaps it could let your grandad join you on the trail despite his bad knee.

Exosuits and other augmentative technologies could help open up the outdoors for people who have historically had problems with access, like older people and those with limited mobility.

And for others, it could extend human capacity to allow us to climb higher, carry more, or reach locations that aren’t available to our unaugmented bodies. Unsurprisingly, there are companies currently piloting recreational exosuits, with exosuits for skiing and tramping currently in development. Keep an eye out at your local outdoor store or ski hire place – they might be coming sooner than you think.

For now, though, exosuits are just one of the many technologies looming on the horizon of our workplaces and our daily lives. What’s so exciting about the exosuit is the way it centres the human body: it literally puts people in the middle. Other workplace technologies hold out the promise of automation that replaces bodies (like industrial robotics), or brains (like AI).

The exosuit is perhaps a more humanist technology, which appears cyborg-like but has more in common with the wheelchair or the pacemaker than Iron Man.

The movement of any technology from the fringes to wide acceptance is a complex process. Some inventions will take off, while others like Betamax or Juicero will fall by the wayside.

And still others will retrospectively prove themselves to be transitional technologies, like compact discs. It’s impossible to know if exosuits will be a flash in the pan, a transitional technology, or ubiquitous.

But regardless of the technological future that New Zealand is moving towards, it’s hoped that policymakers, investors, and inventors will continue to put people at the centre of our innovations and decisions. Whether that means investing in exosuits, cobots, or lifelong learning, New Zealand is well positioned to build a future that’s accessible, inclusive, and fun.

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