LOUISVILLE, Ky.—Hugh Herr has made it his mission to eliminate the word "disabled" from our vocabulary when describing people who require assistance of some sort to perform the daily tasks that most people take for granted. Listening to Herr speak here Thursday at Idea Festival, it's not hard to believe he'll succeed.
Herr's credibility comes mainly from two sources. As the director of the Biomechatronics Group in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (M.I.T.) Media Lab, he has pioneered the development of technologies such as advanced prosthetic limbs and exoskeletons for people with missing or damaged limbs. And as a double amputee, Herr is a prime candidate for testing many of his creations. "I'm basically nuts and bolts below the knees," he pointed out during his Idea Festival presentation.
"I realized that technology has the ability to heal and, in my case, augment," said Herr, whose legs were amputated 15 centimeters below the knee in 1982 after he spent four days stranded in deep snow on New Hampshire's Mount Washington. "Imagine a world so advanced where amputees can run, jump and skip better than people with biological limbs."
To help himself and others who suffer from the loss of biological limbs, Herr created a discipline he calls "biomechatronics," or the study and design of ways to integrate mechanical and electronic technology with biological systems. "By the end of the 21st century, we will have largely eliminated disability," he added.
Herr talked about how computers will be replaced in the future by more organic interfaces for controlling technology that are attached to or implanted in the body. His descriptions of exoskeletons that enhance physical performance and embedded chips that improve cognitive function don't go as far as Ray Kurzweil's prophesy of the coming "Singularity," in which human and machine become indistinguishable, but he does foresee people and technology on a more shared continuum. This might include a set of exoskeleton legs that enable a person to run to work with a level of exertion equal to that of walking and then removing the exoskeleton until the commute back home.
Augmentation of any kind—be it cars that extend our mobility, cell phones that enhance our ability to communicate or computers that boost our memory—are frightening at first, but soon they become part of everyday life, he said.
Herr said he would not want his biological limbs back if such a thing were possible. "These are my creations," he said of his prosthetic lower legs. He then joked, "Beside, I'm able to upgrade. When I'm an octogenarian, I'll be able to walk with less effort and have better balance than an 18-year-old."
During his presentation, Herr also acknowledged a number of projects underway to assist with a variety of other kinds of disabilities. This included work being done by Rosalind Picard and Rana el-Kaliouby in M.I.T.'s Affective Computing lab to help autistic people better comprehend the emotional states of people with whom they interact and then respond accordingly.
Image of Hugh Herr at Idea Festival courtesy of Larry Greenemeier