The Six Million Dollar Question: How Will The Future of Prosthetics Affect Human Performance and Self Esteem?

Cyborg Sprinter (Credit: 3oneseven Agency)
(This is a post that I have had milling around in my brain for quite some time but knew that I needed a few hours to really get it down properly. Here's hoping I was able to do it justice.)

Earlier this summer as I was out for a training run, I was listening to a podcast in which they were interviewing amputees and people who had prosthetics. Some of the prosthetics were traditional, while others were technologically enabled making them easier to use. There are some being built that can even interact with the user's brainwaves, to read brain signals in order to trigger movement. It was an intriguing episode and I spent a good deal the day thinking about the topic, even after the podcast ended:
  • First of all, it made me hyper-aware that I was running down a busy street, on both of my legs and that I am fortunate to do so. 
  • Secondly, it made me think about the mechanics and motivation behind my running.
  • Third, it made me wonder how a technologically-enhanced prosthetic would affect a person's self esteem and sense of accomplishment for completing physical tasks, like running.

Let me explain.

In a couple of weeks, I'll be running the Canadian Army Run. It's an incredible event where able-bodied supporters of the Canadian Armed Forces run alongside disabled soldiers in wheelchairs and on prosthetics. [Aside: Of all the races I've run, it's the one I've done consistently since its inception, which I consider my duty as a good little Air Force Brat (my Dad was in the Air Force for 25 years and I grew up on bases).] There is a larger contingent of able-bodied runners but the entire sea of runners has a profound collective respect for anyone who is completing either the 5k or the half marathon in a wheelchair or on prosthetics. In fact, those soldiers regularly receive silent claps of support from fellow runners throughout the entire course. It can be an incredibly emotional experience on all sides.

For the most part, completing a long distance race (hell, any race) is an accomplishment that runners (and walkers) cherish. It is the culmination of time away from family, possibly long lonely treks in good weather and in bad, possibly through injury (or even blisters) and at the end, even though everyone gets a participation medal, there is an overwhelming sense of one's physical limitations exceeded only by one's drive and will.

Crossing the finish line can be life changing for some; a catalyst to do more, to do things differently. It can be a powerful stand-alone moment. Even crossing the finish line among a sea of runners, completing a race can feel like belonging to some secret society, some exclusive club. It can make a person feel indestructible.

So would that change if some part of us were powered by batteries? Would completing a physical challenge like a half marathon or a Spartan race mean as much if we were assisted by technology?

Now, to be clear: I don't mean non-powered prosthetics like those used by Oscar Pistorius at the Olympics. I mean limbs that are powered, with computer chips and servos. With the potential to be better than the original organic limbs they are meant to replace. We're not far off: how long before we build a better-than-nature artificial heart or lung with more-than-normal capacity? How long before prosthetics have the precision and speed of robots?

So consider:
  • If someone with a computer-enhanced artificial arm played the violin perfectly, would we consider it as much a feat as if they had organic limbs?
  • If a double amputee could jump higher, and clear the high bar more consistently, would we let them compete?
  • If carbon fibre limbs had sensors to respond to the surface on which they were used, making them more or less flexible and thereby increasing the user's speed, would we consider them an unfair advantage?
And what about on a personal level? If you had powered legs and ran a marathon in a much faster time, would you consider it a technological feat or a human success?

It's still a human making the machine go, but once you would find out that it makes you much faster, how much of the accomplishment would you own? Especially if you knew that by upgrading or downgrading the tech on your body, you could have better or worse results?

And now consider: what if someone selectively amputated a limb in order to get a better, computerized one? Should they be allowed to compete with non-enhanced runners?

The possible implications on our self-esteem are significant. And even the ethics of it are staggering. We're on the brink of some really big questions. And for me, it's something I seem to think about more and more when I let my legs carry me on a run.

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