Daniel H. Wilson on bionic technology


Oscar Pistorius of South Africa, shown here in the men's T42/43/44 200m during day one of the BT Paralympic World Cup in May (Michael Steele/Getty Images)

First aired on Q (20/7/12)

Thirty years ago the term "bionic" would conjure an image of only one thing: The Six-Million Dollar Man. The popular TV series featured Lee Majors as an astronaut gifted with bionic strength after a catastrophic accident. But what was science fiction then is quickly becoming reality now. Assistive technology -- think mechanical limbs and neural implants -- are getting more common and more advanced. According to bestselling author and robotics engineer Daniel H. Wilson (best known for writing Robocalypse), this bionic technology may have a profound impact on our collective future, perhaps changing what it means to be human as more and more people begin to enhance themselves. ampedcover.jpg

Wilson's latest novel, Amped, looks at a future populated by super-able people. But he believes it's not that far from a possible future reality. "You can graph human evolution, which is mostly a straight line, but we do get better and change over time, and you can graph technological evolution, which is a line that's going straight up," he explained to Q host Jian Ghomeshi. "They are going to intersect each other at some point, and that's happening now."

Wilson points to several real-life examples of that happening right now, such as South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius (seen in the video below). Pistorius, who had both his legs amputated below the knee, now runs with carbon-fibre limbs called Cheetah Blades and qualified for this summer's Olympic Games. When Pistorius was originally banned from competing in the Games in 2008 because some people believed his "bionic" legs gave him an advantage, he put together a team of scientists to prove he deserved to compete. "[They] argued that the disadvantage of having his legs amputated was greater than the advantage of having this technology that allows him to run." And they won.

Athletes like Pistorius are causing an interesting debate about ethics in sports. Back when drugs were the only accessible enhancers, it was easy to say what was right and what could be banned. But assistive technologies are making that divide between right and wrong a little blurry for some officials. "At the end of the day it's very clear that he was a person who had a disability," Wilson said. "Now, he was a person who runs faster than 99.9 per cent of people on Earth, and that can be considered a super ability."

Wilson is steadfastly on the side of those who are impressed with Pistorius's feat. However, he recognizes that if these technologies -- which are currently used to help people with disabilities -- were used to enhance the feats of able-bodied people, things could get messy. For example, there is a neural implant that treats epilepsy. It tracks the brain's patterns and when it sees a pattern that looks like the beginning of a seizure, it stimulates the brain away from that seizure. Wilson postulates that it's possible for this technology to be used to make people more attentive and more focused -- which could lead to better results in athletics. "It could detect something like that you're practicing your golf swing," he said. "And in response, an implant like this could stimulate your brain to allow you to concentrate, to allow you to learn how to do a physical task quicker and faster and perhaps at an Olympic level."

Wilson doesn't have an answer for this ethical dilemma, and foresees these problems becoming more complex as these technologies become more common. For example, he sees neural implants moving from treating the worst cases of epilepsy to treating mild cases of ADHD. These shifts means we have to rethink our medical system, rethink what it means to be disabled and even rethink what it means to be human.

"These are interesting questions," Wilson said. "We've been co-evolving with our technology for a hundred thousand years. Human beings and the technology we make were always inseparable. We're finally coming into this moment where it's coming inside our body for the first time in history."

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