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Future Shock

On Monday in San Diego, at a symposium of the International Society for Optical Engineers on Smart Structures, three robot-arms designed and programmed to arm wrestle a human opponent lost.

Despite "electoractive polymers," which are bendable plastic constructions that can be stimulated to change shape as muscles do, none of the machines could beat a seventeen year old girl who characterized herself as "not very strong."

But science sprints and lurches on, and it's not hard to imagine the development of a polymer — or some other muscle-like, throbbing construction — that could be grafted on to the injured portion of a pitcher's arm and then stimulated to competitive ends. And if, after surgery and rehab, that pitcher was throwing eight miles an hour faster than he could before he was injured, would he be allowed to return to the game? What if he still threw his pre-injury fastball, but his arm was less prone to fatigue? And what about a pitcher who's never been injured, but who just decided — perhaps with the enthusiastic, financial encouragement of his employers — to have the bionic arm operation the way some people with perfectly good noses decide they need smaller ones? Would it be okay to have a polymer-enhanced shoulder if you'd shredded the original equipment throwing fast balls, but not okay if you'd opted for proactive surgery?

This may be the next technological/pharmacological leap to drive a commissioner of baseball into self-righteous fits of contradictory harrumphing. The questions accompanying a development like the enhanced arm may be the twenty-first century extension of the questions Bud Selig faces now: Where is the line between rehabilitation and the augmentation of one's physical potential via chemical means? Should a professional baseball player be prohibited from ingesting a substance or taking advantage of a procedure available to anybody who isn't a professional baseball player? Should a distinction be made between stimulants and other substances and treatments that are potentially harmful, and those that, as far as anyone has been able to determine, are not?

There was a time when I thought it would be fun to be the commissioner of baseball. But I'm happy that I'm not the commissioner of baseball now, and I'm happier that I will not be the commissioner of baseball in some potentially more juiced-up and complicated future.

This program aired on March 11, 2005. The audio for this program is not available.

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