Ethical, Legal and Societal Aspects of Wearable Robots
Wearable robots (WRs) are an emerging technology designed to augment, train or supplement motor functions. Usually worn over clothing, WRs are mechanical devices that are essentially anthropomorphic in nature, are worn by an operator and fit closely to the body, and work in concert with the operator's movements. Ideally, they work in seamless integration with the user’s (residual) musculoskeletal system and sensory-motor control, with minimal cognitive disruption and required compensatory motion. The term ‘wearable robots’ includes both exoskeletons and orthoses, which relate to WR’s purposes. Although they also contextualize the computer in such a way that the human and computer are inextricably intertwined, WRs are different from wearable computing in general, e.g. fitness trackers, smart watches or head-mounted displays, which are also body-borne devices but lack the influence on motor functions and subsequent intertwinement of human and machine). Wrs should be also distinguished from social robots, which are external to the body; and prosthesis, which replace rather than support limbs.
To provide appropriate augmentation or supplementation of physical capabilities, WRs are fastened directly to the user’s body and process vast amounts of data. Through their close human-machine interaction, active WRs may generate destructive forces whose controlled output behavior may not always be in agreement with the user’s intent. This particular, close interaction with the user raises ethical, legal and social (ELS) issues, e.g., questions about safety, responsibility, and identity, which differ from those of other, previously mentioned, robot technology types that interact differently with users, e.g., socially assistive robots.
So far, the ethical, legal and societal (ELS) implication community has insufficiently engaged with the topic of the design and use of WRs, although concepts like privacy-by-design have been developed since the 90s, and, after the introduction of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in 2018, are even legally binding in Europe. Moreover, the existing literature on the ethics of robotics has been criticized for being too distant from innovation practices and contexts of use.
Engagement with these ELS issues is crucial, as guidance and regulation of the design of these devices are needed urgently. The EU has recognized the importance of this subject through their funding of the COST action CA16116 on Wearable Robots for Augmentation, Assistance or Substitution of Human Motor Functions, which has a dedicated working group on ELS issues (European Cooperation in Science and Technology and the framework programme Horizon 2020). The CA16116 ELS WG aims to develop a comprehensive understanding of ELS issues in Wearable Robotics, identifying relevant values and ethical, philosophical, legal and social concerns related to the design, deployment and practical use of wearable robots. In this special issue, the ELS WG of the CA16116 welcomes contributions that address the central ethical, legal, and societal issues revolving around WRs for the augmentation or supplementation of personal capabilities.
Potential topics of interest include, but are not limited to:
- Privacy and data protection
- ELS Implications of the use of brain-computer interfaces for wearable robots
- Tax law implications
- Labor law implications of the employment of wearable robots
- Responsibility, liability and accountability issues revolving around wearable robots
- Disability rights
- Embodiment and Identity
- Policy implications of wearable robots
- Control and agency of wearable robots
- De-humanization and technologization
- Technology impact assessment
- Standards and public policymaking initiatives aiming at regulating wearable robots