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CYBATHLON

The first cyborg Olympics is coming to Switzerland in October

By Mike Murphy

Governing bodies of pretty much every sport in the world generally consider it an unfair advantage for athletes to ameliorate themselves in any way. But what if that was the whole fun of the sport? Researchers at ETH Zurich, a Swiss technical university, plan to host a “cyborg Olympics” in Zurich this October to find out.

But before you start thinking about robotically enhanced superhumans crushing soccer balls, shot-puts and sprint races: The university’s games will actually be open to disabled people that use an electronic prosthetic to complete daily tasks that the able-bodied take for granted. According to IEEE Spectrum, there will be races where paralyzed people will be able to use recumbent bikes using electric stimulations and others with robotic arms to race while carrying items, like a cyborg version of an egg-and-spoon competition. IEEE Spectrum anticipates that the games will “celebrate the strength and ingenuity of human-machine collaborations.”

The competition grew out of a frustration that ETH Zurich professor and games organizer Robert Riener had with the technologies currently available for disabled people, according to IEEE. Its goal will be to drive innovation in assistive tech, similar to what 2015’s DARPA Robotics Challenge aimed to do for human-shaped robots. Contestants, who will be called “pilots” instead of “athletes”—as there will be a technology team behind each participant in each event—will compete in a number of events aimed to mimic real-life events, using robotic devices controlled by their minds, or remote controls. Those with leg prosthetics will have to climb stairs and walk on stepping-stones; those with arm prosthetics will have to slice loaves of bread and open jars. It’s not quite the decathlon or the steeplechase, but if researchers are able to develop robotic solutions to these problems, it could vastly improve the daily lives of many with disabilities, or the world’s growing aging populations.

A test event was held in July 2015, and 80 teams are set to compete so far in this year’s main event, which Riener has dubbed the “Cybathlon.” If the competition is a success, Riener told IEEE that he wants to host a follow-up event to tie in with the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. Who knows: at the next summer Olympics after Rio, we may be seeing podiums full of sprinters, weightlifters and jam-jar openers, and it could be pretty amazing.

Correction: An earlier version of this post misattributed a quote to the games’ organizer and ETH Zurich professor Robert Riener, when in fact it was from IEEE Spectrum’s Eliza Strickland.