Athlete Oscar Pistorius, a 21-year-old from South Africa, has been ruled ineligible to compete in the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games on the grounds of an unfair mechanical advantage. Pistorius lost both his legs when he was 11 months old and now runs on a pair of carbon-fiber Flex Foot Cheetahs, also known as running blades. The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) says that the use of the Cheetah blades allows Pistorius to consume less energy while sprinting, based on a study performed by Professor Peter Bruggemann on Pistorius and six other able-bodied athletes.
Oscar Pistorius plans to fight the ruling. Is he in the right to do so? Prosthetics like the Flex Foot Cheetahs, which are shown to outperform their biological counterparts, toe the line between a prosthetic and a "body hack." And it's not the first time the artificial has revealed the inadequacies of the natural. In 1997, world chess champion Garry Kasparov was pitted against IBM's supercomputer, Deep Blue, and lost. Are we not ready to admit that our creations may be able to surpass ourselves?
Click Continue to explore one of the hardest battles emerging technologies have to fight: acceptance.
5. Limbs that could outperform our own
In an effort to restore abilities to those who have lost limbs and mobility from birth disorders, accidents and amputations, the world of prosthetics has progressed in leaps and bounds. But how will these people be treated if they want to use these new limbs to compete with "regular" athletes? Would a weightlifter with bionic arms, for instance, be allowed into a competition against others who are completely natural?
We're talking about replacement limbs that take training to use and even more effort to master. We're talking about ordinary people who are out to explore the only body they've got.
Sports are heavily segregated based on gender and ability in the interest of having a fair match. Events such as the Paralympic Games are venues for people with physical, mental and sensory deficiencies to compete. But when a world-class athlete emerges, do we keep him out of able-bodied competitions to be fair, or because we're afraid what it would mean if we lose?
4. A match for the ages: man versus machine
The May 1997 victory of IBM supercomputer Deep Blue over chess champion Garry Kasparov proved without a doubt that something man-made could triumph over our very best in a given field. Deep Blue went six rounds against the champion, winning twice, losing once and drawing three times. In response to his loss, Kasparov accused IBM of cheating.
The version of Deep Blue Kasparov went up against is capable of processing 11.38 gigaflops and the machine was specially fitted to play the game. It wasn't the most powerful supercomputer of its day, nor was it invincible — before the match in May, Kasparov went up against the machine in February, winning three times and only losing one round.
Supercomputing has come a long way since '97, and the information crunched is measured in teraflops rather than gigaflops, which is a vast difference. If pitted against a machine once more, would our best chess player even stand a chance? Are we getting closer to supremely strategic machine minds, à la WarGames?
3. Blurring the lines between man and machine
In Japan, power-assisted exoskeletons are being heavily researched to allow its graying population to work longer and with less strain. Here in the States, the technology is under development for military purposes, allowing soldiers to perform in much the same way by enhancing their capabilities in the field.
Unlike prosthetics, power-assisted suits enhance instead of replace. While they are clunky in their current forms, there's no telling how close we are to having working suits as technology continues to get better. It may sound like science fiction — and the genre has heavily explored the concept, such as in Starship Troopers written by Robert A. Heinlein — but computers used to be as big as rooms and use punch cards to compute data, and here I am typing on a laptop the size of a bound notebook.
2. The robot: the forced evolution of man?
Robots are nothing new. Centuries ago, craftsmen made air-powered mannequins that could perform simple tasks such as writing and drawing and those were seen as little more than a novelty. Today, however, entire industries rely on advancements in robotics, like in automobile manufacturing, and humanoid 'bots are moving forward in leaps and bounds.
Take the Asimo, for example. It's serving drinks at Honda's HQ in Japan. Sony's QRIO charmed the world with its whimsical dancing, and then even found a place amongst youngsters in daycare centers. The kids even began to see it as one of their own, covering it with blankets when it laid down as if it might get cold. Artificial intelligence hasn't reached a point where robots are replacing human beings in less labor-intensive positions, but we've already seen robotic tour guides, janitors and medical assistants.
One day, we may even see a robot that wants to run in the Olympics.
1. Make no mistake: Oscar Pistorius is an athlete just like any other.
Who would imagine an boy without legs would become a world-class sprinter just a decade later? Pistorius has secured top honors in the Paralympic Games, a sports competition for athletes with various physical, mental and sensory disabilities.
Yet Bruggemann, who is the director of the Institute of Biomechanics at the German Sports University in Cologne, concluded that the running blades return 30 percent more energy to the sprinter than the human foot does, and that Pistorius may not perform as well against the others if he still had his natural legs. On the one hand, perhaps the Flex Foot Cheetahs do give Pistorius an unfair advantage. On the other, we'll never know how well Pistorius would perform as an "able-bodied" athlete, because the technology doesn't exist to give him back the legs he lost.
His only option now is to appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in an effort to overturn the IAAF's decision. But Oscar Pistorius doesn't want anyone to look at his legs as anything other than that — his legs. “I want to be treated exactly the same as any other athlete who was running my time,” he said.