Written by Sanford Begley
I was at the grocery a few days ago and a number of things ran through my mind and coalesced into a thought that bothers me. When is a disability an advantage? I’m not talking about a living off taxpayer money and claiming victim status advantage. I’m talking about a real measurable advantage. I don’t think we are there yet, but we are approaching that point. What point? The Six Million Dollar Man point.
You see, I saw a child with small ankles and improbably orange crocs. Well, I just saw his legs. My first thought was that it was a prosthesis on someone who had been wounded. Then reality snapped back and I realized what it was. After seeing a number of athletes lately who are competing with artificial limbs and recalling Oscar Pistorius ,who fought and won against a ruling that his artificial limbs might give him an unfair advantage in Olympic races, I began to wonder about the recent improvements in the technology.
Now Steve Austin, The Six Million Dollar Man, had two cybernetic legs, an arm and an eye. This allowed him to perform miraculous feats. Well at least in the show. He might have had an arm capable of lifting a tank, his entire skeleton hadn’t been replaced and I lost my suspension of disbelief many times over that show. However it looks like it will soon be possible to replace much of the body with artificial parts that will function. Apparently there is an artificial pancreas that is supposedly only a couple of years away from reality, there are glasses which correct color blindness, artificial hearts grow steadily better, so many improvements in prosthetic technology.
Now no sane person would choose a prosthetic over a perfectly good body part, but people aren’t sane. Look how many mutilate their bodies in the name of fashion or sexual dimorphism. I know a number of technicians who would seriously consider an electronic eye implant that gave microscopic and telescopic vision that would be useful for work reasons. And people who are driven to compete and win already do things normal people consider insane.
Now Pistorius’ artificial limbs may or may not have been advantage, I don’t pretend to know. I do know that with continuing improvements in metallurgy, prosthetic design, and control systems we are not far from the day when they will be an advantage. Oh, not in life, considering the disadvantages, but certainly in athletic competition. Will we simply forbid humans with artificial enhancements from competing? Or will it be like racing when I was young, where you could race stock, modified, or supermodified. If we do divide it into classes what will be the lines? After all, people have been using artificial aids in shooting for centuries now. What are glasses but a prosthesis that could give someone an advantage in a shooting competition?
In extreme cases it may someday be possible to do the old Science Fiction standby of a brain in a tank, literally in the case of many military SF stories. A tank, or a ship, or a mechanical cargo handler. Keith Laumer did a couple of stories where men actually became tanks, and Anne McCaffrey’s brain ship stories are a more recent and well known example of this. Who knows how fast the technology will come, or how well?
One thing we have to be aware of, whether voluntary “improvements” in the human body or medical repairs to damaged people, the day is coming where we will have Cyborgs among us. While our younger people are only aware of “borgs” from Star Trek those of us who are older will remember that the evil and crazed cyborg was a staple villain of B movies a few decades ago.
The questions become: When does artificial enhancement make one a cyborg? And, how will we treat modified and unmodified humans? These are questions we need to ponder now, before circumstances force those decisions upon us.