Athlete vs. Terminator: The Future of Performance-Enhancing Tech



  • Major advances in biotechnology, printing and prosthetics may give athletes a leg up on the competition
  • The merger of man and machine is a rapidly growing research field with implications across industries like sports, medicine and military

Will bionic athletes be the new stars of the sports arena?

Once upon a time, the term "super athlete" was reserved for those rare, flesh-and-blood heroes who embodied the pinnacle of performance, drive and skill—setting them apart from those less perfect, the mortals, the good but not great. They leapt through the air, defying the gravity that shackled the rest of us to the Earth. They had sneakers named after them, action figures, and posters plastered across walls and ceilings of bedrooms and dorms. But today, in a world defined by technology, and where (thanks to social media) everyone sees themselves as the stars, theres potential for a new breed of super athlete to step into the spotlight.

  • Artificial limbs give amputees an advantage over athletes with original body parts.

Around the world—on the playing fields, the tracks, the courts, the rings—those players are beginning to appear, made slightly more special than ones weve seen before. Possessing something just beyond human: a bionic part—as unassuming as a hip joint, or as extraordinary as a sprinter's leg.

What we refer to today as prosthetics or replacements could become the sought after "upgrades" of the future as technology pushes us into a new chapter of the extraordinary, and shows us what we're truly capable of as we merge man and machine.

With major advances in prosthetic limbs, researchers at the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) came to the conclusion that state-of-the-art artificial limbs give amputee athletes an advantage over athletes with their original body parts intact.

With this much controversy surrounding prosthetic limbs, what about "upgrades" that are hidden from the naked eye?

Similar to prosthetics, major advancements are happening in the world of bioprinting, producing a variety of high-tech bone replacements made of titanium and other advanced polymers. Organic printing is making enormous strides as well. Scientists are now able to create more complex organic tissue in the laboratory, like muscle made of living cells harvested from the recipient. Could high endurance hearts and lungs be next? And will they give nature a run for its money?

As bioprinting becomes more commonplace and we're better able to measure the difference between natural and engineered body parts, will athletes need to be subjected to a new round of testing, above and beyond performance enhancement drugs, to determine if theyve had bionic upgrades?

Or more elusive still—what about neuro-enhancements?

Drugs and technology that can disguise themselves as organic tissue, electro activity and natural stimulants (like adrenaline) in the brain could amp up powers like focus, strategic thinking and other cognitive skills. World-renowned author, inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil might agree that this new reality is just around the corner. As he points out in his body of work—from his recent bestselling book "How to Create a Mind" to his 2014 TED Talk—human beings are on the cusp of a massive culture-shifting singularity in which our relationship with technology will become a fully integrated marriage of man and machine.

But then, maybe we're already there.

In 2010, research was already underway at Arizona State University. Researchers were working under a military grant to develop a brain-control technology that could be incorporated into troops' battle helmets. In a scene straight out of a sci-fi movie, the neuro-tech would allow soldiers to manipulate their own brain functions, helping to reduce stress and boost mental sharpness on the battlefield. At the press of a button, soldiers could mute the pain of an injury without the need for drugs. Imagine what a boxer or a quarterback could do with pinpoint controls like that.

Of course, from a purist point of view, all of this sounds a bit scary.

But there's a flip side to the impending biotech revolution, especially where sports are concerned. What if bio-enhancements became commonplace? Where some might see that as sacrilege, others see opportunity.

Bionic athletes could open up a whole new division of sports, blurring the controversy that once surrounded performance enhancing drugs. If one division is allowed to have legs that can carry them across a playing field in seconds, then what's the big deal about a little growth hormone here or there? Maybe doping would become its own bizarre division. And that's not to say there isn't room for the tried and true organic athlete in a pair of shorts and sneakers. Everyone loves a little nostalgia throwback, especially in a future like this.

Could the spectacle of bionic super athletes be the final incentive we need to usher in the singularity Kurzweil predicted? It may sound like a circus, but a multi-tiered pro sports model would inevitably create new lines of business for sponsors and advertisers. And as far as the industry is concerned, that doesn't sound half bad.


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