Cutting Off Athletes' Arms: What's the Big Deal?


I want to return to an idea we discussed briefly last week in the video and the podcast: voluntary amputation.

Pretend you're a baseball player in some kind of simultaneously icky, bright and beautiful Blade Runner future, and you've been pitching in the minor leagues for a few months. You think you've got the discipline and motivation to make it to the majors, and you know you serve up a pretty sneaky knuckle, but your fastball just isn't cutting it. Why not? Because by now, every pitcher in the majors has undergone voluntary amputation, and replaced his pitching arm with a prosthesis that can consistently throw 135-mph fastballs, and you haven't come up with the courage (or the cash) to go under the knife yet. Would you - and should you - give up your flesh-and-blood arm?

In the podcast, we discussed our perhaps-rational, perhaps-irrational aversion to parting with pieces of our natural flesh. Even if offered a bionic Terminator arm that was guaranteed to be better than my fleshy arm in every way, I'm still not sure I could take the deal. Then again, I'm not a professional athlete. In a world where the competition for peak physical ability is that intense, the pros and cons might look very different. But here's a question that's maybe even more important than what the player would think of transhuman possibilities: What would the audience think? If you're a baseball fan, would you still want to watch a baseball game if all of the players bore absolutely unmistakable bionic upgrades? If batters with rapid-action hydraulic, steel-girded arms could knock it out of the park every time they made contact, would it still be any fun to watch the game?

If you're squirming in your seat, I'm right there with you. For some reason, in our guts most of us really do not like this idea. Something seems wrong with it. It just wouldn't be the same sport we've always loved. But why? Why are we opposed?

Let's eliminate a couple of objections:

1.) It's not natural. I don't buy this one. After all, it wouldn't be the first time we used technology to enhance our abilities to compete. The footrace is probably one of oldest sports in existence, but people have adapted their racing instinct quite well to machines that go much faster than the swiftest runner on Earth. In 2005, Nielsen reported a peak NASCAR fan base of about 8.5 million viewers per race. Auto racing has been huge business for a hundred years. Now there is absolutely nothing natural at all about climbing into a machine and pressing a pedal that causes cylinders of gas fumes to explode at a furious rate and crank wheels that move a frame of metal around a circle of pavement slightly faster than all the other frames of metal in competition. Yet millions of people can't get enough of this. They're watching a sport where the main skill being tested is a driver's ability to manipulate an incredibly powerful transportation prosthesis. So it can't be that in principle we will always be opposed to the aid of technology in our competitions.

2.) It's unfair. If some players had access to hardcore transhuman athletic upgrades and other players didn't, this would reduce the spirit of true competition and make everything feel pointless. This is obviously an untenable situation. It would be like watching a baseball game where only some of the outfielders got to have gloves. So let's put this aside and imagine a situation in which all players have equal access to the upgrades, and bionic arms are regulated by the governing bodies of the MLB the same way NASCAR regulates axles and engines. Like NASCAR, team sponsors could foot the bill for these upgrades, making sure that a player's personal finances would not set limits on what could be achieved. In this scenario, the tools are comparable, and access is equal, so nothing is unfair.

3.) It's cheating. Most definitions of cheating involve two components: unfair advantage, and deceit or trickery. Let's look at the example of a batter who uses a "corked" bat. A few criticisms are salient: First of all, the batter is relying on deceit. Corking a bat is against the rules, so if you're using a corked bat in a Major League Baseball game, you are necessarily hiding the fact that the bat has been modified. In addition, this modification is made on the assumption that it will give the batter an advantage that other batters don't have -- the ability to swing faster, because the bat is lighter. So here, we have both components: deceit, and unfair advantage. (On an unrelated note, if you've seen the Mythbusters where they take on the corked bat, you should probably be at least a little skeptical that bat modifications necessarily improve the cheater's results.) But if bionic body upgrades are not against the rules, and if all enhancements are examined and approved by regulatory bodies, and if everyone has equal access, then this doesn't seem to meet the definition of cheating at all. Everyone has the same opportunities, and nothing is hidden from view.

With these objections put aside, what is left? Is it merely our visceral reaction to the surgical aspect? The fear that such body modifications are probably irreversible? One legitimate concern that has occurred to me is the pressure such an environment would place on players who might not necessarily want to undergo these enhancements. Would we have to form separate leagues? Imagine competition between the BMLB - Bionic Major League Baseball - and the good old-fashioned muscle leagues. I wonder which game audiences would choose. Though I admit I have a hunch, based on the comparison between the number of people who religiously tune in to every NASCAR event and the number of people who spend their Sundays watching the noble sport of footracing.

Jump in the discussion in the comments below - why do our intuitions push back against enhanced athletics? Or does transhuman baseball not bother you one bit?