Cyborg Olympics: Human/machine Athletes

This past October (2016), 26-year-old Mark Daniel, a robotic-assisted athlete, competed in the first ever Cybathon in Zurich, Switzerland. The Cybathon is just one of the events set to take place at this novel Olympics for augmented humansThe games hosted by ETH Zurich, differs from the Paralympics, in that many of the athletes competing have been paralyzed from the neck down, or lost entire limbs due to injury. “In contrast to the Paralympics, the Cybathlon is not focused on exceptional athletic performance, but on building the closest possible connections between everyday robotic assistance devices and the people who use them.” These athletes gain their mobility through extensive training with exoskeleton devices such as a Rewalk, Rex, or eLegs.

balanceboard

Daniel and the Cybathon are an excellent example of the constellation between teche (human skill and technique), virtuosity (the ways in which instruments interact with and aid human ability), and the intersection of these techniques, the technology and the human body. Just like any other athlete, the cyborg needs to re-train their body to move, while at the same time, the technology (exoskeleton) aids the athletes biological structure to function. The exoskeleton, and other prosthetic devices, emphasize the ways in which technology must be thought of as more than just a tool, as technology always works in relation to the human body and its practices. Daniel speaks to the ways that for him, technology activates the border between nature and culture, by affording him the feeling of what it means to be human;

“The more time I spend in the ‘exo,’ the more I feel like it’s a part of me, because with it I can do more,” said Daniel, who was paralyzed in a car accident at age 17. “Abilities get brought back to life.”

“I can actually stand and have a conversation eye to eye with everybody, which for me is a really big deal.”

For Daniel, the technological affordances of the ReWalk are a dream come true. Not only have disabled individuals been re-mobilized, ETH Zurich has created a global network of cyborg-athletes, and a space in which humans and their machines can interact on a social and competitive level. As Manuel Castells notes, “technology plays an essential role in framing the relationships of experience,” the Cybathon works at the intersection of biology and technology, drastically altering the ways in which society views disabled bodies. The technology works alongside the human body to create new experiences for those who have lost functional mobility, while at the same time a network of cyborg athletes is born.

 

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