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Patrick Johnson: Cyborg?

Yes. Or to be more perfectly accurate: Most likely.

Patrick Johnson, Duke senior and reserve forward/center, is the sort of student athlete who can always be counted on for quiet inspiration from the far end of the bench. His ESPN.com biography is a mere two sentences: “Walk-on who earned a scholarship for his senior year. Originally came to Duke to play baseball but quit during his freshman year and spent the season playing intramural basketball.”

But think of the density of those two sentences—they hold a freshman-year extracurricular crisis, a successful try-out in front of Coach K, a trip to the Final Four, a scholarship in return for two years in the gym and weight room, a transition from weekends in the IM Building to the big time in Cameron Indoor Stadium. You and I would be lucky to have had Duke careers so rich. Accepted into Duke’s graduate political science program, Johnson will be returning to Cameron in 2006 for his last year of eligibility.

But I’d be lying if I said I was drawn to Johnson merely as a human-interest story. Rather, my attention was caught by the large, black brace obscuring most of his left arm. First, in person during the home victory over Wake Forest and later, on television during the loss to UNC, Johnson’s brace stood out to me, arresting the eye like glaring asymmetry. The brace is meant, ostensibly, to stabilize a shoulder injury sustained in a January 13 win over Wake Forest. But I have my doubts.

I refer you to a Duke University Medical Center press release from the fall of 2003: “Monkeys Consciously Control a Robot Arm Using Only Brain Signals; Appear to ‘Assimilate’ Arm As If It Were Their Own.”

“Researchers at Duke University Medical Center have taught rhesus monkeys to consciously control the movement of a robot arm in real time, using only signals from their brains and visual feedback on a video screen… marking the first time that mental intentions have been harnessed to move a mechanical object.”

I wish my words could capture the accompanying computer animation. A wire protrudes from a monkey’s head; the wire is attached to what appears to be a brain-scanning device, which is attached to a computer, which is in turn attached to a robotic arm with two pincers. The monkey holds a joystick in its right hand and appears to be playing Asteroids on a computer monitor. It operates the joystick in response to the asteroids, and the robot arm moves in time with the joystick. Then the joystick disappears. And yet the arm continues to reach and grasp as before.

The animation is hypnotic. I stared at the monkey for 10 minutes. I have no idea what any of it signifies.

But I defer to Dr. Miguel Nicolelis, the project’s lead researcher and co-director of the Duke Center for Neuroengineering: “Such findings tell us that the brain is so amazingly adaptable that it can incorporate an external device into its own ‘neuronal space’ as a natural extension of the body.”

We proceed now into the realm of speculation. The robot-monkey breakthrough came nearly two years ago. In the time since, may it not have become possible for the arm of a healthy human patient to be amputated, cybernetically enhanced, reattached at the shoulder and then wirelessly reconnected to the neural cortex? I defer again, this time to Professor Güven Guzeldere, co-instructor for Philosophy 195, “Cyborgs.”

“[Yes]” says Professor Guzeldere.

No current member of the men’s basketball team would have been a better candidate for cybernetic enhancement than Patrick Johnson. The health of a J.J. Redick or a Shelden Williams could not have been chanced; by electing to enhance a reserve, Coach K would have been risking nothing. And should Johnson emerge by the end of the season as a cyborg gamebreaker, no opposing coach will have had time to prepare for him.

In fact, Johnson-as-cyborg would explain a great deal: the extra year of eligibility (when he will be fully functioning), the senior-year athletic scholarship (in return for undergoing experimental surgery) and, of course, the mysterious black shoulder brace. In accord with Occam’s Razor, the simplest explanation is usually the correct one.

So let me leave you with this question: When Johnson started against Wake at home, played two minutes and was warmly embraced by Coach K and his Duke teammates upon his return to the bench, was it the celebration of a role player finally getting his moment in the spotlight, or of the unholy union of man and machine?

It is not, I admit, an airtight case; that’s for the news pages. But this is opinion. In my opinion, Patrick Johnson is a cyborg.

And when he explodes for 50 points per game during the NCAA tournament, you read it here first.

Rob Goodman is a Trinity senior. His column appears Fridays.

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