Disabled or super-human? – Breakthroughs in bionics and ethical questions

The world may have been divided on the issue of letting a specially-abled Oscar Pistorius compete in able-bodied sports but the clock spoke for itself and naysayers were silenced with his amazing capabilities on the track.  He finished last in his 2012 Olympic race but had he won suspicions would have re-arisen as to whether he had the added advantage of technology.  An advantage that two legs, however well-trained, could never match.  Bionics of all sorts will hit the market in the next few years, with huge advancements made and extensive trials underway, but is the prospect of technologically-enhanced people something to be excited about, or a little scary?


Oscar Pistorius

Pistorius is the first double leg amputee to participate in able-bodied competitive sports at the Olympics. On the one hand it only seems fair to allow him to compete considering what he’s had to overcome physically in order to make the grade in the first place.  On the other hand, his ‘blade-runner’ prosthetics have been created especially for the purpose and are updated, re-developed and exchanged for new ones unlike the same tired legs his opponents will have been dragging around. Changes in the use of fibres and tweaks in shape to optimise strength and speed seem like fair play now but when ‘disabled’ athletes begin to win in able-bodies sports as a standard, the argument will not be should he be able to compete but whether ‘un-enhanced’ athletes are really the disabled ones. Andy Miah, Professor of Ethics and emerging technology at the University of the West of Scotland believes it’s only a matter of time before we all step outside of ‘human limitations’ in all aspects of life, using “nano-technology devices under our skin and improving our physical properties without us really noticing it.”

Everyday life

Outside of sports, ‘techno-boosting’ as it has come to be known can only be a good thing right? Just this week Dianne Ashworth, an Australian woman who has suffered with blindness for years was given a bionic eye that has partially restored her sight.  Dianne had severe loss of vision due to an inherited condition called retinitis pigmentosa.  The bionic eye prototype was fitted in May and monitored while scientists waited for the device to ‘bed in’ before they switched it on.  Dianne describes the first indication that it was working as ‘a little flash’ or ‘a splinter.’  Dianne says, “There were different shapes and dark black, lines of dark black and white lines together.”  The bionic eye is inserted into the choroidal space, next to the retina where electrical impulses stimulate the retina, passing impulses back to the brain and creating the image.  Equipped with twenty-four electrodes, a small wire extends from the back of the eye to a receptor attached behind the ear.  This technology has proven to restore near-normal vision to blind mice and although scientists concede that it will probably provide only black and white vision for now, blind patients could still achieve independent mobility.  Summing-up the incredible experience of her returning sight, Dianne Ashworth recalls, “I can remember when the first bigger image came I just went ‘Wow’, because I just didn’t expect it at all but it was amazing.”

Bionic Eye

So what’s the problem?

For a lot of people, technological advances of this nature are exciting, reassuring and provide hope for the future in a world where so many suffer with life-altering diseases, hereditary conditions, or just get hurt.  On the flip side, there is a raging ethical debate that argues that the ‘unnatural’ use of technology and engineering could create a part-human/ part-machine minority with unfair, above-human capabilities.  This could potentially change our society by hurting human relations and creating a great divide between the enhanced and the un-enhanced.  There is also the question of cost – only the rich would be able to afford assistance of this nature, which doesn’t seem right.

Ekso Bionics, a pioneer in robotic exoskeleton technology builds exoskeletons that can help paraplegics finally leave their wheelchairs.  Speaking to, Ekso CEO, Eythor Bender says of bionic technology – “…the medical market is just the beginning.”  His long-term plan includes “robotic frames for industrial workers, like miners, dockers, and construction workers.”  Exoskeletons will come to be used as recreational apparatus, allowing us strength beyond our usual capabilities and endurance we could never have imagined.  Bender talks about ‘climbing Kilimanjaro’ for people who have the dream and lack the ability.

As a former employee of Ossur, the company that makes the prosthetic limbs used by Oscar Pistorius, Bender envisions a world where nothing need hold us back from achieving a super-human quality of life.  The Ekso ‘Rewalk’ is already being trialled in rehabilitation centres in the U.S., with the company hoping to pass FDA approval tests for personal Ekso exoskeletons in 2014.  The $130,000 price tag means it won’t be within reach of most people who would like it but once the technology exists, with it will come advancements that will affect cost and lead to greater availability.  Prof Miah of the University of the West of Scotland agrees with Bender’s vision of a huge bionic roll-out – “In the future we will think of everybody as already disabled. And it won’t be a question of whether people that have disabilities are better or worse.”

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