What happens when man and machine are combined? Next month researchers from around the world will attempt to answer that question when the inaugural Cybathlon, or bionic Olympics, takes place in Zurich, Switzerland. In contrast to the Olympics or Paralympics, Cybathlon won’t feature events like the high jump, the long jump or the 100 metres, as all the events at Cybathlon are geared to replicate the daily travails encountered by disabled people.
““You might see Dave Henson or Hannah Cockroft out on the track competing, but you’re seeing them as elite athletes in their element. What you’re not seeing is Hannah in her wheelchair trying to go over an uneven surface or Dave having to walk with his prosthetics down a steep staircase. This is the role of Cybathlon: it’s all about working with people with disabilities, using advanced assistive devices to compete in obstacle course that are based around everyday tasks,” says Dr Ian Radcliffe, project manager of the Sports Innovation Challenge and a member of Imperial College London’s Department of Bioengineering.
Cybathlon will play host to six events, all of which have the capacity to improve the lives of the athletes, or pilots as they are referred to at Cybathlon, and disabled people around the world. Events at the Cybathlon will include a Functional Electrical Stimulation (FES) Bicycle Race, a Powered Leg Prosthesis Race, a Powered Wheelchair Race, a Powered Exoskeleton Race, a Powered Arm Prosthesis Race, and a Brain-Computer Interface Race (BCI) where competitors race computerised avatars powered by BCIs.
But these aren’t just normal, starter pistol fires and everyone dashes for the finish line, races. The arm prosthesis race, for example, will involve things like: making breakfast, moving plates and dishes around, hanging out the washing and carrying heavy loads. Additionally, the wheelchair, the exoskeleton and the leg prosthesis race will all require pilots to tackle obstacle courses that feature stair climbing, steep ramps, uneven surfaces and things that disabled people can be expected to come across every day.
Does Cybathlon need to be competitive?
It’s not just the pilots who will be competing at Cybathlon. The research teams will be just as competitive, if not more competitive, because Cybathlon isn’t just an end-of-term show; it’s an opportunity to move assistive technologies forward.
“The competitive element enables companies to not only try and push their own devices, and research institutions and colleges to try and push their field of development, [it also allows them] to showcase the work they are doing and encourages collaborations,” says Radcliffe. “It’s a chance for research groups to showcase the work that they’re doing, see what other people are doing, and there’s a symposium as part of the event as well, so people get to present their work, and by having a competitive element you add this drive to go further and better.”
Because Cybathlon is a competitive event it needs a fairly stringent rulebook, which could potentially cause some conflict as teams battle to try and push the technology as far as it will go while still staying within the rules.
“It’s restrictive and it has frustrated us in some ways,” says Radcliffe. “From the organiser’s point of view this is the first event of its kind and if they don’t set fairly limiting guidelines then they don’t have any idea of what’s a fair comparison. Is it fair for someone with a spinal cord injury to compete against someone with Duchennes ( a neurodegenerative disorder that affects around 1 in 3,600 boys and results in muscle degeneration and premature death)? They don’t know that at this stage, so at the moment they’ve been very conservative and that fair enough. It’s the first event of its kind.”
Replacing the Olympics
Will Cybathlon ever replace the Paralympics or even the Olympics? Once bionic hands become as sophisticated as the real thing would there be anything to stop Cybathlon pilots from competing against Olympic javelin throwers or pole vaulters? Not according to Dr Radcliffe who believes that Cybathlon will always be separate because it’s a combination of technology and human endeavour that pushes the athletes forward.
“The Paralympics should never be about technology. The Paralympics is about rehabilitation, and it’s about human endeavour,” says Radcliffe. “If the Paralympics becomes about who’s got the best technology, who’s got the £100,000 wheelchair from BMW, who’s got the best blades then it becomes an elitist event, and you only get the Western countries and possibly China who are going to put money behind their athletes, and you will alienate the whole objective of the programme. Cybathlon is about the technology interaction and it should always be kept separate from the Paralympics.”
Radcliffe sees Formula One as a better analogy for what’s happening at Cybathlon because of the collaboration between technology and humans. But that’s not to say that you won’t see amazing feats of human endeavour at the event.
“I think what we want to avoid is it becoming a robot wars niche area,” says Radcliffe. “It is about developing the technology in its specific uses for people, and it’s important to have engagement with the end user to make sure we’re heading on the right track to do that.”
Cybathlon begins in Zurich, Switzerland on 8 October 2016, but Team Imperial will be showcasing their technology at this year’s FutureFest on September 17 and 18 at London’s Tobacco Dock.