Monday, February 6, 2012

What Limits Humanity?


One of the oldest ideas in existence is of humans receiving super powers due to some type of artificial augmentation.  Achilles was said to have gained near-invulnerability after his mother submerged him in the river Styx.  The Chinese folk hero Fong Sai-yuk was made similarly invulnerable when his mother treated him by breaking every bone in his body and then bathing him in Chinese Rubbing Alcohol.  (No word on where child services was during either of these events.)  More recent cultural heroes include astronaut Steve Austin being rebuilt stronger, faster and better following a debilitating accident in The Six Million Dollar Man, and Peter Parker's inheritance of super powers as a result of being bitten by a radioactive (or genetically modified) spider.  From the beginning, these stories have been harmless fantasies, an escape for people wishing to exceed their own limits.

How much longer will these stories remain fantasies?  And what will happen when they become real?

The New York Times recently profiled Oscar Pistorius, a runner from South Africa, who is the center of an unusual controversy.  Given that he has no legs, should he be allowed to race in the Olympics?  Until recently, this would be a non-issue, as his handicap would have prevented him from qualifying.  Now, however, the question is being raised as to whether his artificial limbs give him an unfair advantage.

Both sides raise excellent points, and the case could still go either way.  The complexities of the biology and physics involved make it difficult or impossible to arrive at a truly objective and accurate answer.  The fact that other amputees, using the same type of artificial limbs, have not enjoyed similar athletic success certainly suggests that Mr. Pistorius is an accomplished athlete.  On that basis, perhaps he should be allowed to compete.  However, that's a short term answer, and every year the decision will get more difficult.  Regardless of the state of technology today, it is inevitable that at some point, possibly soon, a runner using artificial limbs will have an overwhelming advantage over his or her "non-handicapped" competition.  Recent progress in biomechatronics has been impressive, and this progress shows every indication of continuing or accelerating in the foreseeable future.

Perhaps you think I'm being overly optimistic in this assessment.  If so, you probably haven't seen the videos of Dean Kamen's "Luke" arm.  You probably haven't seen the demonstrations of walking robots, capable of navigating terrain ranging from hills to snow to ice.  For years, we couldn't even think about these types of technologies, because the computing power needed was too heavy.  But artificial limbs have finally made the same types of breakthroughs that computers made when mainframes and minicomputers finally gave way to the first primitive personal computers.  The current generation, represented in those video links, represents the TRS-80 and the Apple IIe of prosthetic technology.  Think about what happened to personal computers after 10, 15, or 20 years.

Where is this going to go?

On the one hand, this development is a triumph of progress.  For most of human history, a physical handicap has been a death sentence.  In the best of circumstances, it was an overwhelming burden for the handicapped, forcing them to live on charity at the outer fringes of society.  Only recently have people missing limbs had a reasonable chance to participate in society on almost equal terms, with that "almost" always representing a disadvantage.  The idea that a handicap might turn into an advantage seems like long overdue compensation for millennia of suffering and marginalization.

Still though, are we ready for what comes next?

Let's suppose that to keep things "fair" (or at least simple), the Olympic Committee decides that athletes cannot compete with artificial enhancements, thus limiting the field to people with their full complement of limbs.  This is roughly where we've been up till now, albeit enforced by the limits of technology, not the rules.  But then what happens?

Even if you're not a sports fan, it's likely that at some point, you've watched at least a small portion of the Olympics.  And even if you are a sports fan, unless you have a physical disability, or are close friends with or related to somebody who is, odds are that you've never watched the Paralympics.  It doesn't have the same excitement, the same cachet, nor the same advertising or endorsement dollars.

When Paralympic athletes start outperforming their Olympic peers on a regular basis, expect that to change in a big hurry.  The definitions of what is possible will go out the window.  The Paralympics will be faster, more exciting, and more unexpected than the Olympics.  It's audience will grow.  The advertising and endorsement dollars will follow.  Fame, recognition, and glory will follow for the participants.

How long before the first able-bodied athlete voluntarily amputates his or her own limbs in order to be able to compete?

Perhaps you think the answer is "never".  Even if the Paralympics gain more prestige than the Olympics, surely that won't drive people to willingly mutilate themselves.  Right?  Isn't that much too high a price to pay to be a champion?

For me, absolutely.  Probably also for the majority of the human race.  But there's a problem with this sample size.  The majority of the human race are not competitive athletes.  In a famous study done by Dr. Gabe Mirkin, 100 competitive runners were asked if they would be willing to take a magic pill that would guarantee them an Olympic gold medal, if the pill would also kill them within a year.  Roughly half of them said yes.  Presumably they planned to take it during an Olympic year.

To my knowledge, this survey has not been repeated, and I have no idea if it was conducted properly, with the necessary scientific sampling.  But even if improperly conducted, it seems a strong indicator that the number of people willing to trade their health for victory is far above zero.  If you doubt, check take another look at your sports pages for the latest steroid scandal in your favorite sport.

For years, people were terrified by the loss of privacy that would come with advancing computer and networking technology.  Now that the technology has arrived, we find that privacy has not been snatched away by big brother.  It's been voluntarily given up by people in the form of Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare.  Most of the information we share seems like a good idea at the time.  Occasionally, somebody is rudely reminded that perhaps there should be some self imposed limits.

We've similarly been terrified of the possibility of being transformed into Cyborgs against our will.  It seems much more likely that we'll do it to ourselves, because it seems like a good idea at the time.  Let us hope that we figure out how to set appropriate limits before we learn the consequences unpleasantly.

1 comment:

  1. Brandon Chorney, D.C.February 28, 2012 at 11:59 AM

    Great post it brings into play two questions. How far will technology take human performance, is the technology of steroids different than external physical performance enhancement? Also, what does it mean to be human?

    Here is another article on this topic.

    http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2012/02/redesigning-people-how-medtech-could-expand-beyond-the-injured/253236/?google_editors_picks=true

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