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Future Humans - How Technology Could Transform Athletics Forever

July 19, 2018


Open any comic book, and you’ll quickly understand the fascination man has with merging with machine. The concept of a cyborg has existed since long before the word was invented and has been common in science fiction since before the second world war – but this decade, the cyborg seems poised to step out of the pages of fanciful novels and into the real world.

Google (News - Alert) is working towards fully self-driving cars. Virtual reality has landed – and, it seems, fizzled out somewhat already. Elon Musk has started a project which intends, ultimately, to merge man with AI, while the robotics venture studio Rewired are focusing on inegratign robots into our everyday lives. With the backing of tech entrepreneur Tej Kohli, Rewired hope that robotics can fit so seamlessly into our daily routines that their presence is barely noticed.

It’s a world where anything can happen – and now, scientists are turning their thirst for advancement towards improving the human body.

Exoskeletons and exosuits (wearable machines which help humans with endurance and strength) have been around for a while now. With military and medical uses, these high-tech body suits can be used to help soldiers march with increased loads, or to help those with traumatic injuries to learn to walk and move again. But only recently have we reached a stage of advancement where this technology can be applied for purely recreational purposes – and this is where athletics come in.

Have you ever wondered how much further you could run without your pesky metabolism slowing you down? Well, thanks to the researchers at Harvard Biodesign Lab, now you can find out. They’ve developed a lightweight, textiles-based exosuit which acts as a second pair of hip extensor muscles, reducing the metabolic strain of running by around 5.4%. This may not sound like a great deal, but this is only the beginning – and the suits’ designers are working to increase its efficacy, believing it could help athletes and those in recovery. 

This development poses a challenge of the kind raised by Oscar Pistorius when he became the first amputee to compete in the Olympics in 2012: where do body enhancements and technologies fit in to competitive sports? Pistorius was originally banned from competing amid fears that his carbon-fibre prosthetic legs actually gave him an advantage against other athletes – and, as exosuits develop to become smaller, more wearable and more commonplace, we’re likely to see a similar debate form around these types of technology. Competitive athletics is all about pushing the human body to its greatest extreme – and these suits are likely to become ubiquitous, in the same way that breathable technology in running shoes is ubiquitous now.

According to NPR’s automation calculator, which uses research from Oxford University to calculate the likelihood of any given job being taken over by AI, athletes have a surprisingly high chance of being replaced. The statistical likelihood of this is currently weighted at 28.6% – to put that into perspective, writers have a 3.8% chance of being usurped by AI, and personal trainers have an 8.5% chance. So the concept of competitive sports fundamentally changing is not as ridiculous as it may first seem.

Could wearable technologies be the first step on the journey? As this blog points out, statistics, data and analytics already feed into athletics to a surprising degree, meaning it’s not as ‘human’ an art as it’s generally considered – so as technology improves, it’s highly plausible that these add-ons will form a key part of the competition, in much the same way as the cars do for F1. How effective these enhancements can become, however, remains to be seen. In the meantime, we’d advise against wearing them on the treadmill.