Writers have envisioned machine-human hybrids for nearly 200 years. As early as 1839, Edgar Alan Poe’s “The Man That Was Used Up” told a satirical story of a war hero injured so severely that he consisted mainly of prostheses. If you’re older than a certain age you may remember watching “The Six Million Dollar Man” on Friday nights or seeing RoboCop in the 1980s or Iron Man more recently. It probably seemed very futuristic.
But another way to look at cyborgs is to consider fictional characters such as the Tin Woodman from the Wizard of Oz or Darth Vader. These characters we remember because of their personalities, not because of their mechanical enhancements. In fact, we may not even think of them as cyborgs. I make this analogy because cybernetics in the real world is like that – we take cybernetic enhancements for granted, so much so that we don’t think of people with these enhancements as cybernetic. Yet technically they are, and cybernetics isn’t really science fiction anymore.
Cyborgs are enhanced people. Enhancements such as eyeglasses or canes have helped people better live their lives for years, and no one would consider them cybernetic. Cybernetic enhancements rely on more sophisticated technologies and, as we look at the sophistication of many enhancements that have become common, we realize that cyborgs are more common than we think. Consider artificial limbs, cardiac pacemakers, brain pacemakers (to treat Parkinson’s disease), cochlear implants (hearing aids that connect directly to the nervous system), artificial hearts –- all cybernetic. For many, these enhancements allow them to overcome otherwise serious medical issues and greatly improve their quality of life.
Pushing the Limits
While the technologies aren’t particularly unusual, others push the limits. Athletes, in particular, are constantly searching for whatever advantage they can find – for example, we are not surprised to hear about steroids and doping in professional sports. With technology becoming more pervasive in sports, cybernetics is seen as another way to gain an advantage.
Consider Oscar Pistorius. Both of Pistorius’ legs were amputated below the knee when he was 11 months old. This did not prevent him from playing water polo, rugby, and tennis, and wrestling as he grew up. He began to run and at age 18 and was fitted with special prosthetics known as racing blades. He became a Paralympic champion and began to enter non-disabled events.
That’s where the trouble began because many felt the blades gave him an unfair advantage. Scientific tests revealed that “Pistorius’s limbs used 25% less energy than runners with complete natural legs to run at the same speed, and that they led to less vertical motion combined with 30% less mechanical work for lifting the body” (Wikipedia, 2017). In 2008, the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) ruled that Pistorius was ineligible to compete in many events, including the Olympics. Pistorius successfully appealed and competed in the 2012 Summer Olympics, finishing eighth in the 400-meter individual race.
We are also seeing “bio-hackers” using cybernetics to enhance their performance outside of athletics. Amal Graafstra, a computer programmer, has implanted RFID chips embedded under his skin and used them to unlock doors or to be used instead of typed-in passwords. Canadian filmmaker Rob Spence lost an eye and replaced it with a wireless video camera that transmits in real-time to his computer. Kevin Warwick, who claims to be the world’s first cyborg, has attached electrodes to the nerve fibers in his arm that allow him to control a robotic arm and his own wheelchair. Ian Burkhart, a quadriplegic, can control his hand via a sleeve on his arm wired directly to his brain (House, 2014).
Cybernetic enhancements can be very empowering. Athlete Aimee Mullins has a dozen pairs of prosthetic legs. In her Ted talk, she discusses “the superpowers they grant her: speed, beauty, an extra 6 inches of height.” Mullins tells of a talk she gave to a group of children, where she asked them what kind of legs would enable her to jump over a house. She received an interesting reply.
One eight-year-old said, “Hey, why wouldn’t you want to fly too?” And the whole room, including me, was like, “Yeah.” And just like that, I went from being a woman that these kids would have been trained to see as “disabled” to somebody that had potential that their bodies didn’t have yet. Somebody that might even be super-abled…. A prosthetic limb doesn’t represent the need to replace loss anymore. It can stand as a symbol that the wearer has the power to create whatever it is that they want to create in that space. So people that society once considered to be disabled can now become the architects of their own identities and indeed continue to change those identities by designing their bodies from a place of empowerment.
Mullins shows us the good that will continue to come from cybernetics. Yet, as with all technological change, challenges will arise as well. I believe competitiveness will drive acceptance of cybernetics in future sporting events as athletes push the limits of “human” potential. It is conceivable that cyborg gladiators will face off in future Super Bowls, to the delight of a new generation of (American) football fans. These fans will be cheering a different game than is played today but is a logical extension of football players continuing to get stronger and faster—and a cross between today’s football and robot combat. In other sports, enhancements may become so prevalent and difficult to catch that they become accepted, perhaps with different leagues for enhanced athletes.
As this transition continues, sporting leagues will face increasing pressure to regulate cybernetics, as the performance of cybernetic athletes increasingly surpasses that of their non-enhanced competitors. Expertise in cybernetic technology will become more relevant to sports law.
Outside of sports, cybernetics will transition from a way of dealing with adverse medical conditions to means for self-improvement. This can be a very positive thing, but resentment, discrimination, and prejudice are also likely to follow as well. In a future article, I’ll take a closer look at some of the issues likely to arise as this transition occurs and how the legal system may deal with them.
House, A. (2014, October 20). The Real Cyborgs. Retrieved February 10, 2017, from The Telegraph: http://s.telegraph.co.uk/graphics/projects/the-future-is-android/
Wikipedia. (2017, February 10). Oscar Pistorius. Retrieved from wikipedia.org: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oscar_Pistorius
Dr. Craig Rosenberg is an entrepreneur, human factors engineer, computer scientist, and expert witness. You can learn more about Craig and his expert witness consulting business at www.ui.expert.