Monday, October 25, 2010

Pistorius, Cheetahs, Fairness and Augmented Humans

Last year the  NBA banned a new shoe, one with springs in the soles designed to enable basketball players to jump higher. For a sport where the physical size and talent of athletes surpass the traditional physical space of the sport, this makes perfect sense. It once again reminds us how important it is to control technology to keep the athletic accomplishment scaled to human beings.


The press release announced that "Under league rules, players may not wear any shoe during a game that creates an undue competitive advantage," The key to most interventions like this lies in the equal playing field defense or the fairness argument. If players/teams of equal talent and skill compete, then the ethics of sports competition requires that the outcome be determined by the combination of skill, practice, commitment and energy that makes up the essence of athleticism. If one player/team wore different equipment and created a different outcome based upon the edge created solely by the equipment, then that equipment should be banned or everyone should have equal access to it. Sports, unlike modern sail boat racing is about level playing field competition not technological arms races.

I've argued before that one of the central moral attributes of athletics is that it asks human beings to develop their human physical and mental capacities to achieve a level of excellence, what Aristotle and the Greeks would call a virtue. This defense of athletics argues that it exists as a central human practice in most cultures. It develops as an expression of physical intelligence, but also as  serious play priming individuals to skills needed to defend their tribe or community.

This drive to perfect  human capacities and skills through games grounds  why we both play and enjoy sports. We connect to the drive for excellence and the expansion of human potential in the best athletes as well as enjoying the unfolding of real skill wrought from practice and commitment.

This is why issues of technology is so vexing for sports. Most sports are mediated by technologies whether it be soccer (balls and shoes), running (clothes and shoes), tennis (rackets and shoes) etc. Even ones that seem minimally subject to it such as swimming through water turn out to be vulnerable to technological transformation through buoyant and streamlined suits. Two years ago world records regularly fell to the swimmers wearing the newest technology with technology trumping athletic excellence and level competition.

But the issue of technology and humanness has now gone far beyond policing shoes and swim suits. Track and field has grappled with a a very interesting struggle over the last three years with decisions and evidence about double amputee Oscar Pistorius who is a South African sprinter. He runs on two prosthetic cybernetic legs called "Cheetahs." Football players and other athletes have used them in competitive sports, but Pistorius sprints and no one can quite figure out if he is a human racer with the cybernetic legs or something else. The cheetahs are integrated into his nervous system but based upon flexible paddle like feet. At first he was outlawed because of the fear that the internal springs gave him advantages, but the Court of Arbitration for Sport ordered him eligible for the Olympics.

Now a new set of tests conducted by scientists hired by his own advocates have concluded that the lighter weight of his prosthetic enables him to cycle faster in running, roughly 15 percent faster than a normal human male runner. More recent studies are unclear, but all make clear that the fundamental dynamics of his running differ from two legged runners and might provide some substantial differences. In NASCAR this is handled by putting serious limits upon the technologies used so that everyone has same technology but may win by superior tinkering or efficiency maximization.

Two different issues arise here. The first is the equal playing field or fairness argument. If one player uses a new technology that provides a unique advantage only on him or her, then it should be outlawed, or as initially happened in swimming, everyone can adopt the new technology so the field is equalized. Although in the end the technology so outstripped the ability to regulate, that swimming went back to basics. The spread of composite rackets in tennis represents the same evolution. The competitions may generate new records that are enabled by the technology, but at least it is a fair race. The battle over Pistorius and his prosthetic legs reflects this moral argument about fairness. If the initial data is right, then he should not be allowed to compete with other human legged runners. If it comes in as equal or equivalent, then any changes in the technology must be retested for comparative advantages.

But the deeper issue is the one manifest in the swimming controversies and the decisions to back off from the high tech race that lead to newer innovations and meaningless technologically augmented records even if everyone used the new suits. (This resembles the arguments over steroid enhanced baseball records--if not everyone used them, they should not be respected because it is unfair advantage and not true reflection of what might have happened if everyone had used it.) But with steroids or swimming technology and most clearly with the Cheetah prosthetic, the question arises, is this really human athletics or sports anymore?

In these cases augmented humans are now participating, but it is not clear that equal humans are now competiting against one another. This is not about regular human beings using structured diets and intense effort training to achieve their excellence. The point here is that the human being with his or her work ethic, focus and integrated mastery of mind, emotion and skill achieves the outcome, not enhanced musculature or cybernetically or suit enhanced bodies. This person is no longer  strictly human and these are not strictly fair outcomes

This argument has lots of holes, but we need to keep thinking about why athletic achievement should be kept to human beings, not augmented more than human human beings.


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