Hugh Herr: The Man Who Thinks Tech Can End Disability

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Technology can wipe out disability, says MIT professor and amputee and climber Hugh Herr

A man walks up onto a stage. It’s an archetypal tech conference stage: a lectern, gentle lilac and pink lighting filling white spaces on the back wall, a vacant arc of red swivel chairs ready for lukewarm panel discussions and a lambent, pale main light. We know the man is from MIT and he looks the part – tall, lithe, smartly if unassumingly dressed, geeky.

The suited attendees at the Technology Frontiers meet prep themselves for another 30 minutes of interesting if somewhat histrionic chatter. The first few talkers have rambled a tad, but made some big statements. The most outrageous being that reading and writing would not be around in 150 years, the most newsworthy probably a defence of Google’s privacy policy from Vint Cerf, the man credited as father of the Internet.

On newer legs

But the man who has just taken their place makes a claim bolder than anything most of those slumped in their seats will hear this year: technology will eradicate human disability this century. Everyone is suddenly in thrall.

This man is Hugh Herr. His story is well documented. In 1982, Herr was climbing a tricky ice route on Huntington Ravine, Mount Washington when a blizzard hit. Herr and his companion Jeff Batzer dug themselves into snow caves where they were stuck for almost four days in temperatures as low as -28 degrees C. Both suffered serious frostbite. Batzer had his lower left leg, the toes on his right foot and fingers on his right hand amputated. Herr lost both of his lower legs.

Within months, Herr was climbing again using prosthetic legs, eventually designing his own. He became a pioneer in making bionics a reality for amputees, helping replace lost limbs with computerised, machine versions. He leads the biomechatronics field working out of the MIT Media Lab in the US. He’s had books and films made about his life. He’s an important guy.

Herr himself has two high-tech prostheses for his lower legs. Back on stage, he’s showing them off, bouncing, dancing and running around. Yet when TechWeekEurope caught up with Herr after his speech, he is much more sedate, demure even. His monotone voice belies the passion he has in his project, yet his demeanour is ultimately serious. He knows what he is doing has incredible implications for the future.

Not that he doesn’t have a sense of humour. I ask him what he was doing academically at the time of the awful events on Mount Washington. Herr chortles, looking into the distance as he reminisces. “I was a terrible high school student, getting Ds and Cs. I went to my five-year reunion and at the time I was at MIT. People were like ‘you can’t be the same person, you just can’t be’.”

A cure, or a solution?

But back to his amazing statement earlier in the day. Is he serious when saying the effects of disability will be gone in the next 90 years thanks to technology? “In my talk I said this century, which is probably too conservative. I think most of it will be done in the next 50 years,” he says, without any flux in intonation. “I’m not always talking about a cure. My own body, I’m not disabled now, but you didn’t cure the fact that my biological limb is missing. A lot of it’s just acknowledging human interactions, but there will be some cures. The good news is that we don’t have to wait for a cure to improve people’s lives.”

I ask him to talk me through the technology in his prostheses. Without any sign of embarrassment, he raises his trouser leg. He must have done this a thousand times before. In one leg there are 12 sensors that measure force, positions and speed. There are three microprocessors embedded to transmit information to different parts of the leg. In the ankle joint, there’s an actuator, which acts as an artificial muscle, powering Herr along. The foot itself is elastically passive. Prior to creating the leg, the MIT team did studies to figure out precisely what muscles do when a subject is walking. This was then replicated, primarily in the actuator.

Yet despite the time and money spent on what looks and acts like an amazing bit of technology, Herr thinks his bionic legs will be redundant soon enough. “In 20 years what I’m wearing now will be completely laughable. This is crude stuff. We’re just getting started.” Right now, a major problem for amputees is the discomfort in the actual connection between the man and the machine. That’s what Herr wants to fix first.

Tapping the tibia area of his left prosthetic, Herr says it’s “actually low tech”. “I’m making this scientific in how it’s built. If you ask a hundred amputees what’s the one thing they want solved, they would all say this, because it’s uncomfortable.” Herr is putting together a rich data set through MRI scanning and physiological tests to get “mathematical descriptions of the interface”. “Then we’ll use high-tech fabrication strategies to build the interface.”

Herr also wants better computational communication for greater tactile capabilities. “The way the limb is attached to me is crude, therefore I have discomfort. There’s no electrical communication between my body and it. I currently have no neural implants… The device itself will be a closer and closer emulation.”

The business of bionics

Herr believes the work he is doing won’t just have humanitarian benefits. There’s money to be made too. And if there’s a market here, it means more people will receive help. Despite all the horrors and injustices the Iraq and Afghanistan wars spawned, they have helped make the biomechatronics industry a lot more viable. Back in 2007, Herr gave Garth Stewart, a 24-year-old Army veteran who lost his left leg below the knee during the conflict in Iraq, a bionic ankle. It used tendon-like springs and an electric motor to provide support for Stewart.

Herr was also one of the key scientists who helped overturn a decision to ban Oscar Pistorius, the well-known sprinter and double amputee, from competing in International Association of Athletics Federation events. Pistorius is now close to competing in the London Olympics this summer.

The US-led wars and the interest surrounding Pistorius have led to greater public knowledge of the biomechatronic sector. This has led to greater funding and most of it doesn’t even come from government. Over the eight years it took to create Herr’s lower legs, $25 million was spent. Just $3 million came from government agencies in the US. The rest came from investors and venture capitalists. “It’s a huge market. Billions and billions of dollars of wealth will be generated from this.”

“The war in Iraq and Afghanistan has created an awareness and has unleashed a lot of funds from the US government for research in these areas. You’re going to see a spike of innovation coming out of this period. This [his prostheses] is actually the first technology to come out of the Iraq/Afghanistan fighting that has been shown to work better than conventional technology.”

Ethical issues

There are those who don’t agree with Herr’s method. From those of religious persuasion, or from others who believe in the sanctity of the body for whatever reason, biomechatronics has faced and will face opposition. Disability charities may have opinions on the subject too. As Herr’s project gathers momentum, so will antagonism towards it.

Back on stage, Herr is taking questions from the audience. In the midst of typically reserved British businessmen and women, Cory Doctorow, a Canadian science fiction writer and co-editor of the Boing Boing blog, pipes up. Doctorow asks whether Herr would advocate use of bionic limbs that are superior to biological ones.

Herr pauses and then responds with a question of his own: if you woke up every day with an aching limb, or joint, or whatever, wouldn’t you want to fix that? “Of course you would,” he adds.

This writer, with what feels like the onset of lumbago causing me grief, creaking knees, a jaw that clicks on practically every significant gnathic movement, an almost guaranteed future of arthritis and a father who already has a fake hip, would certainly be interested.

“But what if you were doing it for athletic purposes?” Doctorow responds. Herr says if the need is there, then why not? He has some controversial opinions. A future devoid of disability? Many would agree that’s an amazing prospect. But a future where people can upgrade themselves as if they were DIY machines themselves? Is that something people want?

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