Switzerland Will Host the First Cyborg Olympics

The “Cybathlon” will show what happens when humans and machines collaborate

A man with a mind-controlled prosthetic competes in a test run of October's Cybathlon in Switzerland. ETH Zurich / Alessandro Della Bella

For decades, Paralympians have performed athletic feats with the help of things like wheelchairs, prosthetic limbs and assistive devices. But where does the athlete end and the technology begin? That question will take center stage at a new competition that celebrates the collision of man and machine, reports Mike Murphy reports for Quartz.

Switzerland will hold the world’s first cyborg Olympic-style games this October. The competition, known as the Cybathlon, is the brainchild of Robert Riener, a professor of motor-sensory systems at ETH Zürich, a university known for its technical programs. A few years ago, Riener got the idea for the games when he read a newspaper article about an amputee who used a motorized prosthetic leg to climb Chicago’s Sears Tower. “It inspired me to think about a similar event that could be held here in Switzerland,” says Riener in an interview on the event’s website. “[A]n event that would extend beyond a single race to include many other disciplines.”

At this October’s Cybathlon, researchers will come together to discuss technological advances in machine-assisted human activities, like brain-computer interfaces and powered exoskeletons. Then the games will begin: People with physical disabilities will compete in one of six events, assisted by robotic aids and a team of experts. Events will include a brain-computer interface race, functional electrical stimulation bike race, and races using powered arm and leg prosthesis, powered exoskeletons and powered wheelchairs.

The Cybathlon won’t just showcase what humans can do together with machines—it’s also designed to raise awareness of the needs and obstacles of people with physical disabilities. Murphy notes that each contestant will be called a “pilot” and will show their prowess in real-life events like climbing stairs or opening jars. Since they’ll use their minds or remote controls to perform the tasks and be assisted by advanced tech teams and cutting-edge technology, the competition will be like nothing else in the world.

A competition that embraces human-robot collaborations in everyday tasks is a far cry from the actual Olympics, which discourages athlete assistance (remember the kerfuffle about Speedo’s record-breaking swimsuit?). That tradition goes back millennia. The Olympic Games in the ancient world had a particularly humiliating punishment for cheaters—people who didn’t play by the rules or tried to bribe officials were commemorated with statues that lined the path athletes took to get to the Olympic stadium. At the Cybathlon, though, help in the form of technology is not just welcomed, but required.

The Cybathlon has one eye on the actual Olympics, too: Riener tells IEEE Spectrum’s Eliza Strickland that he wants the next event to take place in conjunction with the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. Don’t want to wait? Head to Switzerland this October to witness some impressive human-robot feats. Tickets are now on sale.