The Cheater Inside

The article asked the question: are implants or prosthetics that can enhance our performance either cognitively or physically, cheating? Is having a small chip implanted in your brain to improve focus and concentration the same thing as doping (as it is now commonly understood)? The author thought this was peachy – the way of the future and you better start swimmin’ or you’l sink like a stone… I do not agree. Is it a fair race between the bionic man and a mere mortal? Is it a fair contest between Hercules, a child of the gods and common man? No it is not – so yes this is cheating – and yes we should be concerned that this is the way the wind is now blowing.
As I read this story and considered the position of the author I was both curious and incensed. Was there no sense of moral perturbation? Just the happy thought that we will all willingly submit to becoming Borg-like in order to not be left behind. After some period of contemplation I wanted to understand why this was not clearly cheating the same way it is if you take a shot of whatever miracle the pharmaceutical industry has lately produced. Barry Bonds was largely vilified for alleged doping despite his feat in hitting home runs. How big does the asterisk next to his name have to be if he is using a robotic arm to swing that bat?
The conversation is about to get louder as we approach the Olympics where there may very well be a sprinter using something other than his own legs for running. The obstacles he has had to overcome are not to be minimized, few would envy a double amputee, but sprinting is fundamentally a foot race and the athlete in question lacks natural feet. Should that mean he can not compete in this race? I think it does. There are races in the para-olympics where you compete with others in a like situation. Maybe we should also be creating a category of doping olympics so that you can gank yourself up on whatever drugs you want and see how you do in a somewhat more leveled playing field – kind of that same concept as pick on someone your own size.
The argument doesn’t change a whole lot when you start talking about cognitive enhancements. I am willing to bet that everyone reading this (and thank you by the way) has either taken a standardized test or knows someone who has. These tests work to assess certain learning and/or cognitive function in a neutral way. I know, they don’t always succeed and we do a lot to screw up the results in a lot of ways, but this is the theory. And we use these tests to gauge understanding, performance, work habits, etc., a whole bunch of stuff. So what happens when Johnny really needs to get a better SAT score because he really needs to get into that top ranked school so he can get the big money job… you see where we are headed, and he happens to have a little chip implanted on the surface of his brain that fires little neurological signals to dupe his brain into continuing to concentrate right about when he would normally want a nap? Is that better or worse than the fact that he is naturally quite clever and knows how to hire someone to take the test for him? Is it different than Barry Bonds? Look, Barry still hit all those home-runs – other guys have doped and haven’t been able to do what he did. So what’s wrong with enhancing your natural ability?
Is education just a very basic form of cognitive enhancement? What about training for your sport – is it fair that some people can put in a twelve hour day training and I can barely get to the gym twice a week? Why shouldn’t I be able to go bionic-ize my body and join the pro-tennis circuit? This of course starts to descend into the ridiculous because in many ways it is. It is also one more of those grey areas that are confusing. They are so confusing that we often don’t make up our mind about what is right and what is wrong until we are pretty far down the road and it makes it hard to turn back. I often say to my eleven year old son, “think about what you are about to do and ask yourself if it is a good idea.” He frequently fails to carry out this admonition. There are a lot of things going on right now for which we should stop and ask ourselves if they are good ideas before we end up with consequences that rent the very fabric of our humanity. That sounds scary, a lot of this is scary, someday the chip in my head will tell me what to think about this, and then maybe the mirror will open and drop my little calming pill into my hand so I don’t have to worry about any of this anymore.

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