Technological Doping?

“Technological doping? Responsible Innovation in Sport Engineering” is the title of the talk that I will give in Amsterdam, on April 8th, at the Science and Engineering Conference on Sports Innovations (SECSI).

Whereas more and more cases of biomedical doping are discussed in the media (the tennis star Maria Sharapova‘s being only the last episode in a series of scandals), little is said about the ethics of technological enhancement in sport. This is striking if it is true that when we talk about performance enhancement the concern for the health of users is not the only one among the public and professional ethicists (fairness, authenticity, responsibility-shifting are others), so that many of the arguments against biomedical doping  – both the sound and the flawed ones – may be soon turned into arguments against “technological doping”. Is this good news? Below, in the abstract of my talk, are some preliminary reflections (short summary: confusing and arbitrary regulation is in no one’s interest, so let’s start a systematic reflection). Speaking of ethics of enhancement, my co-authored chapter  “Why less praise for Enhanced performance?” is finally coming out in a Oxford University Press collection on Cognitive enhancement.

Here’s the abstract of my talk in Amsterdam:

How should the use of high tech products be regulated in competitive sport? What should count as “technological doping”? In recent years there have been strict bans on the use of high-tech products in competitive sport, like the Union Cycliste Internationale’s ban on ultra-aerodynamic bicycles and the Fédération Internationale de Natation ban on Speedo’s LZR Racer swimsuit after the Beijing Olympic Games. However, sport federations do not seem to possess solid criteria to draw a clear line between legitimate and illegitimate use of technology in sport: whereas it can easily be seen that the (concealed) use of an engine in cycling is both unfair and against the spirit of that sport, it is much more difficult to clearly establish why the use of ultra-aerodynamic bicycles or high-tech swimming suits should count as technological fraud.

This lack of clarity about the guiding principles behind the regulation of sport technology is worrisome, as it may lead to unpredictable and potentially arbitrary restrictive regulations; and these may in turn curb future research and investment in sport technologies, and cause a reduction of their positive externalities; they might also make competitive sport less attractive to the public.

In this paper, starting from my experience as a researcher on the ethics of human enhancement, and based on the general principles of “socially responsible innovation” [1], I propose a methodology to develop an applied ethics of technological enhancement in sport. This methodology is based on three key elements: a) theoretical research on values and technological enhancement in different sports; b) interdisciplinary collaboration between researchers and private and public stakeholders c) strong design perspective.

Theoretical research. Existing research [2] shows that humans attach different values to competitive performance: fairness, safety but also a sense of authentic agency and a meaningful contribution to the final result; performance enhancing technologies are seen with suspect insofar as they negatively affect one or more of these values. Philosophical and psychological research is required to identify, define, and map the different values entailed in different sports.

Interdisciplinarity. Academic researchers cannot do this research alone: they need input and feedback from sport associations; they also need to interact with designers and private companies in order to understand which products can promote which values in which sport under which conditions.

Design perspective. Academic researchers, designers, sport associations, policy-makers, and private companies should interact from the very early stages of their respective researches in order to elaborate specific design guidelines for the creation of technological products and the elaboration of policies that really promote the values of different sports.

The paper makes a call to designers, private partners and policy makers, for a collaboration on joint research projects on the applied ethics of technological sport enhancement, and proposes a methodology to start this collaboration.


[1] van den Hoven, J. (2013). “Value Sensitive Design and Responsible Innovation”, in R. Owen, J. Bessant and M. Heintz (eds), Responsible Innovation – Managing the Responsible Emergence of Science and Innovation in Society. West Sussex: John Wiley, 75-84.
[2] Santoni de Sio, F, Faber, NS, Savulescu, J & Vincent, NA (2016). “Why Less Praise For Enhanced Performance? Moving Beyond Responsibility-shifting, Authenticity, and Cheating to a Nature of Activities Approach” in F. Jotterand, & V. Dubljevic (eds.), Cognitive Enhancement: Ethical and Policy Implications in International Perspectives. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Posted in doping, Ethics, ethics of enhancement, responsible innovation, SECSI conference 2016, sport engineering, technological doping, Technology

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