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While traditional sports only grudgingly accept technological augmentation, the 2016 Cybathlon, a kind of hybrid between the XPRIZE and Olympics, embraces it with both robotic arms. Disabled competitors (or pilots) will compete using assistance devices like powered exoskeletons, robotic prostheses, and brain-control interfaces.

We’ve chronicled the continuous evolution of such technologies over the years, but they’re still largely out of reach for most folks.

The University of Switzerland’s Robert Riener and the Swiss National Competence Center of Research in Robotics are organizing the event in Zurich to push assistive technologies closer to mainstream use.

Each winning team will receive two awards: one goes to the pilot, the other to the maker of their device. And while competitors will be vetted to  insure they don’t have a physical advantage, technological advantages are welcome.

“There will be as few technical constraints as possible, in order to encourage the device providers to develop novel and powerful solutions.”

The tech on display will include arm and leg prostheses, brain-control interfaces, functional electrical stimulation, powered exoskeletons, and powered wheelchairs. Pilots may be paraplegic, quadriplegic, even locked-in. The brain-control interface competition, for example, features a video game—controlled entirely by thought.

How’s that possible?

In a famous example, a quadriplegic patient, Cathy Hutchinson, used a BrainGate2 neural implant to control a robotic arm with her mind. Other methods using (electroencephalogram) EEG caps sense electrical patterns in the brain to less-invasively achieve similar results (like in this recent thought-controlled music player).


At Cybathlon, parathletes will use exoskeletons, like those by Ekso Bionics, to navigate obstacle courses. Others will use functional electrical stimulation of nerves in paralyzed limbs to compete in a bike race. Arm amputees will use robotic prosthetics to navigate a wire course as quickly and nimbly as possible without touching the wire.

Robotic prosthetics (arm and leg), like those from the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago and Case Western Reserve University, use computers to recognize electrical patterns in muscles and nerves and allow patients to control bionic limbs with thoughts alone. Some are even beginning to send rudimentary sensory touch information back to the brain.

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The Cybathlon wouldn’t be possible without these technologies, but perhaps it wouldn't be quite as urgent if they weren't still confined to labs and clinical trials. The hope is the Cybathlon can add another incentive to speed things along.

Over the years we've learned that incentivized competition can accelerate progress. The Ansari XPRIZE, for example, resulted in the first private suborbital space flight, proving space was no longer the sole domain of governments.

Scaled Composites won the $10 million competition with SpaceShipOne. Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic subsequently purchased the spaceplane, refined it into SpaceShipTwo, and aims to begin launching space tourists this year.

Meanwhile, another private space firm, SpaceX, is slashing launch costs, resupplying the International Space Station, and working on reusable rockets. A few San Francisco scrappy space startups are even building tiny satellites in garages.

The 2004 Darpa Grand Challenge for self-driving cars similarly sparked a movement. No vehicle finished the course that year, but subsequent competitions realized better results.

Google announced its self-driving car program in 2010, and its fleet of robot cars surpassed 300,000 miles in 2012. Today, cars are increasingly autonomous and more, with greater capability, are in the pipeline from a slew of major carmakers.

The Cybathlon’s prosthetic limbs, brain-control interfaces, and cutting-edge exoskeletons have the potential to radically empower folks with disabilities—maybe a little healthy competition will bring such assistive tech closer faster.

Image Credit: Cybathlon/YouTube

Jason is managing editor of Singularity Hub. He cut his teeth doing research and writing about finance and economics before moving on to science, technology, and the future. He is curious about pretty much everything, and sad he'll only ever know a tiny fraction of it all.