Man Vs. Man-Machine

Sports

If you’re fortunate to have all your arms and legs, it's likely you take them for granted. But amputees are acutely aware of how artificial limbs can aid them in daily life. Some even manage to use them better than the able-bodied, yielding spectacular athletic performances and creating controversy over whether or not prosthetic limbs should be allowed in competitive sports.

Take Oscar Pistorius. Known as “The Blade Runner,” the 25-year-old South African is a sprint runner who was born without a fibula in either of his legs. After having a double amputation, he began running with the aid of Cheetah FlexFoot artifical limbs. Today he is among the world’s top-ranked 400-meter runners and a favorite to qualify for the 2012 London Olympics this summer.

Pistorius’s astonishing abilities have generated claims that his artificial lower legs are not a detriment, but in fact grant him unfair advantages: the Cheetah hardware is about half as light a flesh leg and foot (about 5.4 pounds vs. 12.6), and does not expend energy, implying that Pistorius uses less oxygen and tires less easily than able-bodied runners. While these and other claims led to a ruling that disqualified him from competitions (including the 2008 Summer Olympics), Pistorius was able to overturn it with the help of lawyers and a PR media blitz. A champion runner with no legs is an inspiring story after all, and most people prefer to root for his triumph.

Athletes with prosthetic limbs raise questions about whether or not the genetic circumstances they are born with should matter. But the abilities of all professional sportsmen, disabled or not, are extraordinary precisely because they are not normally found in the general population—as a result of dedicated training, but often innate physical advantages as well. (According to The Science Channel, Lance Armstrong’s lungs have more than double the oxygen capacity of the average man and his heart is one-third larger.) 

It is curious that Pistorius’s case sparks controversy at all though, because his use of prostheses in races is not unprecedented. Fellow amputee and Cheetah user Aimee Mullins, for instance, was also a champion runner, setting World Records in the 100 meter, 200 meter, and long jump. The Paralympic Games too showcases feats of similarly talented athletes with cerebral palsy, visual impairments and a host of other disabilities. Hosted at the same venues as the Olympics, this competition has grown nearly ten-fold, from 400 participants in 1960 to 3,951 in 2008.

Pistorious and other Paralympic athletes may just be the forefront of a new class of sports, for “man-machines” aided by biomechatronics, devices that interact with human muscle, skeleton, and nervous systems. This research is conducted with the goal of repairing motor skills impaired by trauma, disease or birth defects, so currently, most programs are government-funded to provide relief to war veterans.

One such initiative is the Biomechatronics Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, directed by Hugh Herr. But like the futurist F.M. 2030, who believed people would eventually become ''post-biological organisms” made entirely of synthetic parts, Herr envisions a bionic future where all human beings, disabled or not, will be improved by prosthetics, whether they’re guided by internal microchips, propelled by batteries, etc.

“A large fraction of my laboratory here at M.I.T. is attempts to augment human function going beyond what nature intended,” said Herr for a recent New York Times Magazine profile of Pistorius. “It will make normal human bodies seem very boring.”

Image by Elvar Pálsson