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Bionics Expert Hugh Herr Describes Efforts to End Disability, Offers Hope

Hugh Herr. Image courtesy of UT Dallas.

Last year, Kathryn Kuehn lost both hands and feet from a sudden bacterial infection that caused septic shock. The amputations left her in need of prosthetic limbs advanced enough to help in daily activities, including raising two children.

When Kuehn saw that bionics expert Hugh Herr, PhD, would be speaking at the University of Texas at Dallas campus as part of the Arts and Technology Distinguished Lecture Series, she snagged a front-row seat.

“He told me it gets easier as time goes on,” Kuehn said. “His talk gave me hope for the future. Who knows with advances in technology what kind of prosthetics I’ll have in ten years. It was special for me to meet him. The lecture was exactly one year from the day I had my legs amputated.”

Herr’s talk showcased the most recent developments in bionics and prosthetics and pointed to a bright future for those like Kuehn.

“The key challenge, truly, in bionics, is to eliminate disability in the world through biology, technology, and design. This is the challenge of the century,” Herr said.

What made Herr’s talk promising was his own personal investment in advancing the field of bionics: Herr is a double amputee himself. Traversing the stage, revealing a pair of bionic limbs, he shared the story about a blizzard he encountered while rock climbing that left him without legs at the age of 17.

Herr showed a picture of himself lying in a hospital bed without his legs.

“What do you see in this picture?” he asked. “Do you see weakness or strength? Do you see a cripple or a great athlete?”

Initially, the team of doctors who led him through his recovery said he would never climb a mountain again, and that even the simplest of tasks-like driving a car-would be difficult.

“My doctors were wrong because they took a common view of my body. I believe they viewed me as broken. They viewed technology as static. But technology is not a static thing; there is innovation. So I switched it upside down. I said, ‘I’m not broken-the technology is broken.'”

Herr proved his doctors wrong. He designed customized prostheses for himself and went back to rock climbing. He made narrow feet for small rock fissures and spiked feet for ice climbing. Eventually, he became a better rock climber than ever before, he said.

“Society said I was a cripple without legs. A year after my amputation surgery, I climbed walls that no human had ever climbed before,” Herr said.

Herr’s inventions showed him potential for an augmented human. He saw that inadequate technology was the only obstacle to ending disability.

Herr said technological developments that could help end disability are currently being developed. He talked about researchers who are mapping the brain and complex tissues and developing tools that interface with the brain with a high speed of specificity. He also discussed the challenges of attaching these mechanical interfaces to the body in safe, comfortable ways.

New technologies, Herr said, are also being developed at places like the MIT Media Lab, where internal tissue strengths of a limb can be mapped to make prostheses customized and comfortable. These developments extend beyond artificial limbs, he said.

“This notion that things are small, medium, large has to be eliminated. My view of the world is that every human is mapped. The technology that a person uses is informed by one’s own data. In that world, shoes will no longer give us blisters,” Herr said.

Herr ended his visit at UT Dallas by fielding questions from the audience. When a student asked what Herr’s advice would be to students interested in working in the field of bionics, he responded by encouraging students to jump in and start building.

“Just take this view that life is for learning. Learn through building,” Herr said. “Find a problem to solve that you’re passionate about and learn along the way.”

This article was adapted from information provided by UT Dallas.