The “Six-Million-Dollar-Man” and “Real Steel” Scenarios: Science and Technology Blurring the Lines and Creating New Ones

electrically stimulated muscles_Cybathlon
Wheelchair racers whose legs are paralyzed, but whose leg muscles are electro-stimulated to move

 

We cringe when we hear about yet another doping case in sports. Dopers are cheaters! We hope that international bodies like World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) can stay close with the shadow chemists who continue to devise new ways to mask the fingerprints of performance enhancing agents.

We thrill to see a double amputee sprint on carbon-fiber blades, but we worry if they will one day far outpace sprinters who race on legs they were born with. Unfair advantage!

The truth is science and technology, if it had a will of its own, is ever eager to advance, solve problems, and push the inside of the envelope. The infamous Oscar Pistorius was allowed to compete at the 2012 Olympics on his blades, running in the 400 meter and 4X400 meter competitions. Technology in this case did not afford the runner an advantage to take him to the elite levels of sprinting.

But we all know, it’s a matter of time. The “Six-Million Dollar Man” Scenario, where a given person with various prostheses and enhancements will be “better than he was. Better….stronger….faster.” The Six Million Dollar Man debuted on American television in 1973. If the main character, Steve Austin, wanted to participate in the 1976 Olympic Games, he would have won gold in almost every athletic event. Why he wasted time as a secret agent for the OSI is beyond me.

The Six Million Dollar Man

So what does the future hold? Clearly, engineers, scientists and entrepreneurs will continue to look for ways for people with disabilities to return to so-called “normalcy”. They will also look for ways to give “normal” people super-human abilities. In the case of organized sports, the nature of competition will continue to change. In fact, it already has.

When technology creates a totally different standard of performance, new competitions arise, as was explained in this Wired Magazine article from 2012.

When such devices are perfected to the point that they can be used for athletic purposes, we’ll be looking at an entirely new concept of sport. It’s doubtful the Olympics will ever feature exoskelletally assisted runners or weightlifters, but what’s to say that a different type of venue won’t arise for such a thing? “I think that once the technology is proven to exceed normal human function, then the stage will be set for the introduction of a whole new type of enhanced sporting entertainment,” said Matthew Garibaldi, director of the Orthotic and Prosthetic Centers for the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery at UC San Francisco.

In fact, two competitions that put technology front and center have emerged. As explained in this Inverse.com article, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich organizes a competition called the Cybathlon, the next one scheduled on October 6. It’s similar to the Paralympics, in which disabled people use technology, like a prosthesis, and the athlete provides the energy. In the Cybathlon, the difference with Paralympics is that not only are technologically enhanced people allowed to compete, technological enhancement or assistance is required. Think exo-skeletons, powered wheelchairs, powered arm and leg prostheses.

The article also highlights The World Futures Sports Games, scheduled for December, 2017. Sponsored by Gulf money and to be held in Dubai, this competition takes technology beyond the human realm. I call this the “Real Steel” scenario, where people use robots to do their competing for them. Events for these Games will include driverless car racing, robotic running competitions, manned drones racing, robotic swimming, robotic table tennis and more!

Real Steel
Scene from the film, Real Steel

 

As quoted in the Wired article, Andy Miah, chair in Ethics and Emerging Technologies at the University of the West of Scotland had this to say about the future of sports competition:

“Fifty years from now, we may not have [the Olympics and Paralympics]—we may have only one set of performances that people compete in, that reveal how capable they are at using their bodies in combination with technology. When I tune into the Olympics 50 years from now, I not only expect to see different kinds of sports [than we have today], but you never know—I may even be competing there.”