Issues of Augmentation

There’s an article in The New York Times, “An Amputee Sprinter: Is He Disabled or Too-Abled?” (Link), that feels a little like a tipping point for a much larger issue. While the article is about “techno-doping” (a new term for me) and the new, more capable prosthetics, it doesn’t take much to start wondering where a level playing field ends and human augmentation begins.

I’d venture some athletes from third world countries would argue that U.S. athletes, those with access to world class facilities and medical monitoring services allowing them to more efficiently modify their diet or training regimen, would say they’re playing on a non-level playing field. They might even argue that such unnatural management of the human machine is, in effect, a form of augmentation that’s not too different from the prosthetic legs of the sprinter in this story.

With that in mind, couldn’t one argue that augmentation extends to other areas as well?

I surfed past a headline somewhere today suggesting that Google was making people stupid because they no longer needed to remember anything other than tags that allowed them to search for answers. Is Google’s search software a mental prosthetic for the privileged with internet access? And does access to it and similar technology equate to skewing the international playing field in a more fundamental way than most might consider?

How far does augmentation really extend? And how… shallow?

14 thoughts on “Issues of Augmentation

  1. As a dedicated sports fan (of the mostly hapless Philadelphia teams, alasl) I think I come down on the anti-augmentationist side in so far as what I’m paying for with respect to that sport is entertainment, and part of that entertainment for me is the ability to compare statistics and players from different eras. So for a real life augmentationist (I’m all for techno-augmentation for humans who want it. I’ll want it, a lot of people will want it) this is a somewhat reactionary position. But I like what I like, and I like my baseball without doping, my football without adamantium reinforced skeletons, and my basketball without nanotech-microwire musculature-enhanced leaps.

    That said, you are spot on in your assessment of the present reality of augmentationism in sport. Sports have been on an augmentationist trajectory for a long time. Consider the great home run race between Mark McGuire and Sammy Sosa, a phenomenon that was almost entirely the product of Andro (and perhaps Sosa corking his bat). And Barry Bond’s hormonal roller coaster ride has utterly delinked baseball from its traditional moorings. The Babe and the Bighead are playing different sports.
    That said, the augmentation that has occurred thus far has pushed human bodies to their limits, but these are not yet superhuman bodies in competition.

    The allure of sports is in part its history, in part its role as a target for the aspirations of youth (“Maybe one day I could do that”). If these are too remain the selling points for sports, some resistance to the pace of techno-augmentation has to be maintained. If sports appeal is instead to reside on the production of spectacle for the sake of spectacle, then resistance to augmentationism will erode.

  2. That said, the augmentation that has occurred thus far has pushed human bodies to their limits, but these are not yet superhuman bodies in competition.

    From our perspective in the present, this may seem true, but I’m wondering: would someone like Michael Phelps (the record-breaking swimmer who recently smashed some records in Melbourne) be considered “superhuman” by average people in… 1900? back before technology (and business) started involving itself in athletics?

    And in a hundred years when athletes are the product of “Gattaca”-style genetic screening (just “the best” of you), routinely getting blood transfusions, having nanobots inspect and repair tissue damage, and eating genetically-altered foods, will they be regarded as “superhuman” by today’s standards?

    I don’t know. It just seems like it’s already here in ways we simply don’t see.

  3. You’ve got to pick up a copy of Accelerando, by Charles Stross.

    I’ll second that.

    I think the augmentation thing is going become a bit of a King Canute issue, for exactly the reasons you highlight. How do we define augmentation? Drugs are, but controlled diets and biotic supplements aren’t?

    The allure of sports is in part its history, in part its role as a target for the aspirations of youth…

    Maybe it’s because I live in the UK, but I’m not sure that’s true anymore – the allure of sports these days seems to be the ability to associate with success. Look at the attitudes toward referees in football (soccer) – the ref is the enemy. His job is seen to be to prevent your team from infractions and flexings of the rules that might give you the game, but if he cuts the other team some slack, all of a sudden he’s “not being fair”. Here at least, the appeal of sports seems to be winning vicariously. Hence the official resistance to augmentation – I think it was a riff from (of all places) the Red Dwarf series that claimed the reason there are no drugs allowed in sports is because once you allow them in, no one will bother watching the ‘un-doped’ guys …

    OK, I’m rambling now. What I meant to say was that augmentation is a perception of perspective, as Csven seems to be saying. And the more available augmentation becomes, the more it will gradually be incorporated into acceptability. The status quo is not as static as it appears.

  4. And that is what I’m saying (among other things).

    a) Augmentation comes in a wide variety of forms not all of which are obvious to us in this day and age (partly because we’re immersed in it).

    b) Augmentation has been with us and has become an integral part of our culture for possibly much longer than we typically concede or consider.

    c) Augmentation is often discussed in terms of the physical (as in the NYTimes story), but as we become increasingly wired (literally and figuratively) it would seem that mental augmentation – everything from brain implants to evolutionary selection based on one’s ability to interface with external technologies – comes increasingly into play.

    For all we know, the next evolutionary split may fall along technological lines instead of environmental conditions (or maybe a combination of both).

    I don’t doubt just this sort of thing has popped up in cheap science fiction novels and B-movies for decades (I think I’ve seen a few). The difference is, I think, that perhaps we’re at the point now where we might recognize more subtle – but not less significant – changes which we could attribute to our own not-so-obvious efforts .

  5. Thanks, Kim, but unlike most everything else, I just can’t read books on my computer screen. btw, have you read it?

  6. I think the Kenyan Marathon and long distance runners will take up issue with this. They continue to dominate the long distance running area and yet are not as fortunate as the west in terms of accessability to facilities.

    BTW apolgies on the other comment. I did not mean to put anyone down, if it came across that way.

  7. DT, Kenyan runners would be an extreme example. No current amount of monitoring and grooming is going to overcome what tens of thousands of years of natural selection and environmental conditioning has created.

    The question in my mind is: how much more dominating would the Kenyans be if athletes from cultures and regions which didn’t naturally prepare them for long-distance running, didn’t get the support of modern medicine?

    Next question would be: how much faster would the Kenyans be if they had the same access?

  8. csven, I downloaded Accelerando a while back, but haven’t had time to read it. This discussion has certainly kicked it up my to-do list a ways, though.

    The reference in your OP to an article that suggested Google was a “mental prosthetic” reminded me amusingly of things I’ve read about the days when most people weren’t literate — writing was a crutch for those with bad memories.

  9. Good point. In both cases – Google and writing – I want to say, “Naw”. But then I get to thinking about an Isaac Asimov story I read as a kid in which people had forgotten to do basic math because everything is done for them, and I realize that for average people today this is arguably the case: the calculator may very well be having an impact on the larger population’s ability to perform mathematical operations.

    When I consider that, and I think about the oral traditions of our ancestors, maybe writing *is* affecting our ability to remember… we just aren’t aware of the effects because they’re spread out over such a long period of time. That’s not to suggest writing is bad, just that there are cause and effect chains that aren’t easily discerned.

  10. If you think doping / augmentation in sports is controversial, you haven’s seen anything yet. Very few people make their living like this and it’s basically entertainment.

    Now consider some possiblities:

    1. Mental enhancment is invented (drugs, nanobots, brain re-wiring, etc) that when applied to your child give an extra 30 – 50 IQ points. YOU try to be “pure” and not subject your child to such modification. Consequently, your kid can’t compete at all grade levels, and will ultimately be barred from all jobs, except menial labor (assuming these jobs are not completely automated by then).

    2. Methods for accelerating the adult brain are invented. People such as ER surgeons can be made 5-10X more effective at saving lives. They are able to work longer, harder, and make better diagnoses more quickly. Unfortunately, it is found that using the brain accelerator will take 15 years off your lifespan. Ethical choice: do you allow your surgeons to NOT use the accelerator, to save thier health, knowing that many dozens (hundreds?) of people per surgeon will die that could have been saved?

    I’m sure some thinking will yield many more sticky scenarios.

  11. Jeffrey, if you’ve not seen the movie “Gattaca” I’d highly recommend it. The whole plot basically hinges on one such “sticky” scenario.

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