One of the “feel good stories” in the Olympics was Oscar Pistorius. By now almost everyone on the planet knows the story. Pistorius is a South African sprinter who, at a young age, had a double below-knee amputation. He runs on carbon fiber artificial limbs. Having previously participated in the Paralympics, Pistorius gained fame by competing in the 2012 London Olympics. He’s now known as the “Blade Runner” and “the fastest man on no legs.”
Initially the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) banned the use of “any technical device that incorporates springs, wheels or any other element that provides a user with an advantage over another athlete not using such a device.” This ruling would have precluded Pistorius from competing against able-bodied runners. But the ruling was overturned, and Pistorius ran in the 400 meters race and was part of South Africa’s 400 meter relay team at the London Olympics, becoming the first double amputee to compete in an Olympics.
Pistorius stated his belief that the prosthetic blades are not that unusual: “The blades are far less advanced than the prosthetic leg I’m wearing now. In track and field you use shoes that are constantly developing, you use poles, you use so many pieces of apparatus. My prosthetics are not a customized device.”
Would everyone have had such warm feelings towards Oscar Pistorius if he won? Or would the detractors have been more vocal?
Futurists have asked, is it only a matter of time until amputees have limbs so superior to biological limbs that amputees are able to out-perform able-bodied people? More generally, will there come a day when only augmented humans will be able to compete successfully?
On its website the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies (the “Institute”) posed the provocative question, “Oscar Pistorius Now…Elective Amputation in the Future?”
Prosthetics could also one day provide amputees with extrasensory capabilities, such as: optics, chemical sensitivity, echolocation, infrared etc. Could such a reality, many ask, invert public opinion and preference regarding amputation, making amputated limbs a desirable characteristic? And what if, at such point, people without illness or injury desire to amputate their own limbs?
I don’t know about you, but to me the concept of truly elective amputation seems pretty farfetched. It’s understandable that some partially disabled people choose to have limbs amputated and replaced by prosthetic devices. The Institute cited some examples, including “Milo,” whose biological hand had very little sensory or motor ability and “Patrick,” who lost the fingers of his left hand in an electrical accident. While the amputation in the examples may have been “elective,” the prosthetics replaced limbs that didn’t really work. These examples, like Oscar Pistorius, make perfect sense.
Maybe the bigger question may be whether other kinds of enhancements or changes to an athlete’s body will become commonplace, and where to draw the line between what’s acceptable or ethical and what’s not. Some are readily accepted, like Lasik surgery, while others are banned in many sports, like HGH, steroids and blood doping.
When contemplating ethical issues relating to technology and humans, I always wonder what Ray Kurzweil, the famous futurist, would think. According to the Institute:
It is perhaps interesting to note that today’s most famous futurist, Ray Kurzweil, does not include elective amputation (explicitly, at least) in his list of predictions, nor does he discuss it – further exemplifying just how distant the landscape is from one that will foster humans with bionic limbs.
I decided to go right to the source, and consulted Kurzweil’s seminal work, The Age of Spiritual Machines, published in 1999. It’s fun to see how successful Kurzweil has been in his predictions for 2009 and to contemplate his predictions for 2019, 2029 and beyond. Kurzweil made optimistic predictions about how technology would help people overcome disabilities, including the vision and hearing-impaired. He also predicted that orthotic walking systems will help paraplegics to climb stairs. Although Kurzweil may have been over-optimistic as to the rapidity of development, his view that technology is the great “leveler” is supported by the success of Oscar Pistorius.