Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Computational doping, part 2

My sister responded to my first computational doping post with a link to a NYTimes article (subscription reqd) from a couple of weeks ago about an amputee with prosthetic legs who wants to compete in Olympic track. The jury is still out on whether he will be allowed to compete, with one of the major questions being whether his prosthetics give him an unfair competitive advantage.

This got me thinking about my memory software again. My description in the first post said nothing about the intended interface between me and the software. I've generally envisioned a standard sort of interface with menus and links to click as I actively navigate this auxiliary memory. This interface would require so much active use on my part that I'd never really use the software. I want this auxiliary memory to operate without my having to direct it all the time. One such interface would be a brain prosthetic that tapped into my existing thought process and augmented my technical information management, like in the ongoing research into using brain signals to control prosthetic limbs

And now I bet the Turing award committee gets uncomfortable, even if the wearer developed the interface and the software (a fairly formidable research challenge that might well be deserving of the award in and of itself). How does a change of interface make this much difference? Using the first system still required substantial work on the part of the researcher (to initiate use of the system). The second system works subconsciously. It saves effort on the part of the user. Once the user no longer has to actively work as hard, the results feel less worthy of recognition. The work matters as as much as the result. The ends don't compensate for the means.

So perhaps the perception of work is what leads us to view some forms of advantage as unfair. Doping works passively. Training in wind tunnels requires action and dedication. Prosthetic limbs (are perceived to, at least) work without active behavior by the wearer. It's the good old work ethic again. That's an American interpretation, at least. We want work to count for something (students often plead for a higher grade based on effort). But that doesn't explain our acceptance of altitude tents for athletes (which at least require some inconvenience of loss of comfort compared to a hotel bed). There, the distinction with doping appears to be whether we violate the body for advantage. A prosthetic auxiliary brain might also violate us physically (if nerve probes had to be implanted rather than worn on the surface). I somehow suspect that even surface probes to access an artificial brain would make some people uncomfortable with rewarding the results, though.

Doping makes me uncomfortable because it might effectively demand an athlete to violate their body to be able to compete. A breakthrough in prosthetic memory research could do the same to scientists. Much excellent research still arises from human perception and inspiration, so the human scientist still has a tremendous role to play in creating results. Athletes similar have instincts of when to hang back, when to attack, and how to read a competitor. It would be interesting to see studies of these more perceptual skills in elite athletes, and how much they correlate with winning performances.

No comments: