Robotics promise to enhance human capabilities beyond our imagination, but for whom? Industrialized societies are becoming more unequal, which is bad for our health, our democracies and our economic vitality. One of the culprits in growing inequality is technological innovation. So we should be very concerned about whether the acceleration of emerging technologies, such as robotics and human cyborgization, will make our societies even more unequal.
There are three ways that the human-robot relationship is already impacting inequality:
• First, the disabled do not have equitable access to increasingly powerful prosthetic limbs and exoskeletons.
• Second, although we are quickly shrinking the “digital divide,” online robots and the Net are allowing the lucky 1 percent to take jobs from the 99 percent.
• Third, automation is hollowing out the middle strata of jobs faster than it is eroding work at the top and the bottom.
Everyday in the United States, about 500 people have a limb amputated, often as a result of diabetes or heart disease. New prosthetics that provide direct motor control and sensory feedback offer a dramatic improvement in their quality of life…for the lucky few who can afford these new robot limbs. Standard prosthetic limbs already cost tens of thousands of dollars, and the fittings, rehabilitation and replacements can run to hundreds of thousands of dollars. With the limits imposed by insurance companies, many amputees find the costs prohibitively expensive, restricting their choice of technology. This summer Medicare adopted new restrictions on patients’ access to advanced prosthetic limbs, such as denying access if the amputee had ever used a cane or crutch. Likewise, new motorized exoskeletons and implanted brain-computer chips offer people with degenerative nerve disorders and spinal cord injuries the possibility of walking and controlling their environment again, if there were insurers willing to pay for, and support a market, for them.