Super HerrClimber Hugh Herr lost his legs after getting caught in a snowstorm. Now he’s a medical technology pioneer and cyborg who wants to optimise humanity
Whenever Hugh Herr enters the stage, the audience lowers its gaze, but it’s his feet they want to look at, not their own. The charismatic 50-year-old has deliberately rolled up his trousers to reveal two metal, bionic legs starting at the knee where his lower legs ought to be. These high-tech prostheses, Herr explains, are the first step towards a future in which physical disabilities like his will be completely eliminated. Plus, he jokes, they are very useful because, depending on his self-esteem at any given time, he can adjust his height. This often comes in extremely handy, especially in his professional life. The audience laughs uneasily, unsure whether to believe that he “considers himself lucky” to be reliant on these prosthetic legs rather than the once healthy, strong legs of his own.
Herr, who scaled the 3,547m Mount Temple in the Canadian Rockies aged just eight, was already considered one of the most talented competitive climbers on the East Coast of the US, if not the whole world, while still a teenager. He risked dizzying heights that had never previously been reached by experienced climbers, and all without a rope. It was unthinkable that anything could ever stop him. And then he had the accident.
In 1982, Herr and a friend were climbing Mount Washington, unaware that his life was about to be turned completely upside down. The two of them got caught in an almighty blizzard and lost their way on the snow-covered peak. They dug a hole in temperatures plummeting below -20°C and huddled together to keep warm for almost four days before being discovered and rescued.
The climbing expedition cost Herr dearly. He lost both his legs to frostbite. In spite of the specialists’ best efforts to save the limbs, both legs had to be amputated. And it almost felt as if he was being condemned to death when the doctor announced: “You’ll never be able to climb again.” Just as he was recovering from that first shock, Herr also discovered that a volunteer involved in his rescue had died. Herr, who was just 17 at the time, was devastated by the news.
When doctors showed him the standard prosthetics of the day, their hope was simply that he would be able to get around a bit on them. But “getting around a bit” was far removed from how Herr envisioned the life he had ahead of him. He found it hard to disguise his disappointment at the shortcomings of the technology of the day. The reluctance, common to so many extreme sportsmen and women, to accept the limits the rest of us might, would lay the foundations for a career as a bionics pioneer. Driven on by the idea of fully recovering his ability to climb, Herr began working on his musculoskeletal system.
The once work-shy schoolboy who preferred to spend his time hanging off cliffs rather than reading, went on to study physics and mechanical engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and then earned his doctorate in biophysics at Harvard. In the meantime, he fine-tuned his inventions. To this day, one of his favourite jokes is to say that once his prostheses are perfected and attached to his nervous system, he hopes he won’t ever again be the “pre-amputation idiot” he once was. This is because Herr suspects that the accident also caused a change in his brain and, to a certain extent, freed up capacity, since it no longer had to operate his feet, or at least not in the same way.
The First Step into the Future
The legs Herr has on now, or, rather, the legs which Herr is on, are completely artificial. They are made of carbon, titanium and silicone plus a handful of screws and springs. He can put them on and take them off again at the push of a button. It is incredibly straightforward, like putting on or taking off ski boots. His deportment also changes when he takes them off. He looks like a completely different person.
Each prosthesis contains five mini-computers and 12 sensors, which make sure that the bionic limbs move as if they were made of flesh and blood. The robotic legs’ rigidity and strength settings can be programmed with greater precision via a smartphone app. Like the cyborg detective Inspector Gadget from the 1980s series, Herr can extend or draw in his legs and thus radically change his height. That gives him an advantage, especially while climbing, because now he can reach handholds that no climber with normal human abilities can and can stand on promontories that are narrower than his human feet ever were. And just like Inspector Gadget, Herr now also has a whole host of other useful tools in his box of tricks. For example, there are attachments for his prostheses with spikes on them which allow him to climb vertical ice walls.
It is a hobby Herr hasn’t given up on, in spite of his traumatic encounter with the icy Mount Washington. And Herr points out that it is no longer his aim to build himself legs that would be able to do exactly the same things as his human limbs. Now he wants legs that will improve his climbing to an even greater capacity, give him superhuman physical abilities and allow him to do things which weren’t possible.
But can such a miracle man-machine still compete in the same league as us mere mortals? That very same question was the downfall of a much more infamous wearer of bionic legs. South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius, known as the Blade Runner and who in 2014 was convicted of the culpable homicide of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, had to go to court on charges of fraud. Pistorius’s rivals on the track believed that his prosthetic legs gave him an unfair competitive edge. The court invited an expert to decide where the limit lay between what was still human and what was robotic, and that expert was Hugh Herr. It was Herr who was able to bring about a verdict that was favourable for Pistorius and which enabled him to continue running on his blades until his arrest in 2013.
Herr is happy to quote Pistorius as a fine example of the perfect interplay between man and machine. He raves about fusing with technology and of fluid transitions between natural and synthetic body parts. Within the next couple of years, he will get small implants in his remaining leg muscles to improve the link-up between himself and his bionic legs. And 10 years down the line, Herr is convinced that his robotic legs will be connected directly to his nerve endings. He won’t just be able to walk, he’ll be able to feel the ground beneath his feet. In other words, he will regain all the sensation in his legs. The metallic legs ought to become “organic extensions” to his own body “in a wholly natural way”, says the evolving cyborg, clearly driven by a desire to fully reverse the effects of that horrific climbing trip so many years ago.
Herr’s work is well received, especially by sportsmen and women, but also by other people whose lives depend on their mobility. Another famous example is professional dancer Adrianne Haslet-Davis, who lost her left foot in the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013. At the peak of her career, she suddenly found herself in a situation where she could no longer use her work tool, her foot. She met Hugh Herr at a rehabilitation clinic treating victims of the attacks. When Herr heard her story, he recognised himself in her.
Like him, she too had been cut off from her greatest passion in life by the loss of her leg. And just like him, she found it hard to come to terms with. Herr decided on the spot that he would create a robotic leg for her too. It would prove a whole new challenge for the bionics technicians, for dancers move in a completely different way to climbers. It would take 200 days of precise research into the dynamics of her movements to establish that Herr could give her a leg that would do everything she had been used to it doing. “In 3.5 seconds, the criminals and cowards took Adrianne off the dancefloor,” Herr said as he unveiled the prosthesis. “In 200 days, we put her back.” Indeed, the Haslet-Davis prosthetic model is a special rumba leg, fine-tuned for the movements of that particular dance.
Hugh Herr imagines that in the not too distant future, no one should have to suffer physical handicap were they to, for instance, lose an arm or a leg. It should be no different from wearing glasses. People with bad eyes have a visual impairment, but thanks to glasses, which are also a prosthetic, they are not restricted by it in their daily lives. One day, if Hugh Herr’s plan comes to fruition, his prostheses will be as normal and accessible to everyone as a pair of reading glasses. He wants to completely obliterate physical handicap from the world and make total rehabilitation the minimum achievement.
Connecting Nerves to Machines
Bionics and electrical engineering, at the interface between biology and design, are to make Herr’s medical technology science-fiction dream come true. It is an interdisciplinary field in which the neurosciences play an important role alongside electronics, mechanics and biology. Yet the difficulty persists in how to connect man and machine; it is a problem that gave his namesake, Hugh Jackman, many a sleepless night as Wolverine in X-Men. To create a technical device that reacts so hyper-sensitively to the impulses of the human muscles, skeleton and nervous system that it could actually replace lost limbs will require technology of a level that we are still a long way from achieving. After all, it is rare, even when creating less complex technical devices, for them to be designed that intuitively. The user still requires a five-page instruction manual on how to use them.
Hugh Herr’s research group at MIT is currently working on developing special electrodes. This involves connecting two nerve stumps to a small conduit so that the nerve endings are close together. This duct contains a sort of sieve, every hole in which is connected to an electrode. Then the nerve fibres grow through the holes and can make direct contact with the electrodes, thus forming a functional interface between man and machine that allows for a “close to optimal” exchange of information.
Herr has also invented a special prosthetic knee. The artificial knee joint can ‘sense’ a movement’s strength and torque and can adapt to the individual user. The knee contains oil that is diluted with tiny iron particles. An electromagnetic field interacts with these tiny iron particles and this keeps the knee fine-tuned.
Herr is also working on so-called exoskeletons. These are devices which wrap around the outside of the human body and can help stroke patients to move a limb which has lost all sensation, and assist with re-establishing the symmetry of their bodies. And that is just the start, Herr explains. Once this development reaches its conclusion, there will be devices that will make it possible for people to get up out of their wheelchairs and walk.
Yet at the same time, the American tech mastermind reserves sharp criticism for everything that came before him. Even the basic shoe is a thorn in his side because it can give us blisters, which in his eyes, is a prime example of mankind not knowing how to attach synthetic items to our bodies. The prostheses that he is working on are to be the “most comfortable limbs that anyone will have ever worn”. If his ambitions weren’t all about improving people’s lives, you could be forgiven for drawing parallels with the evil geniuses we know from cartoons. The way he talks about his scientific mind and “unusual body” is sometimes reminiscent of wicked superheroes like Magneto.
Life Without Disability
Herr appears to wave aside any question of when his futuristic prostheses will actually be available. He speaks of a future in which they are affordable and available to everyone, as if that future might be tomorrow. This advance would also be good for the economy, he predicts, because physical disabilities are said to cost humanity more than a trillion dollars in healthcare services. If he had his way, a body with basic physiological functionality would be a human right, for almost half the world’s population suffers from some form of cognitive, emotional, sensory or motor bodily dysfunction. “Everyone should have the right to live without disability if they so wish,” says Herr.
Given that there are currently almost a billion people in the world who don’t even have access to clean drinking water, Herr’s dream seems all the more utopian. Even what he calls “everyday prosthetics that everyone has already”, such as glasses, are by no means as commonplace as many people may think. The WHO estimates that there are between 500 million and one billion people worldwide who need glasses but simply can’t afford them. So for now, the slogan “prosthetics for all” is likely to remain reserved for a future which is as far off as limbs which renew themselves.
Yet in Hugh Herr’s eyes, nothing is impossible. “There are no limits” is one of his favourite sayings about the fusion of man and machine. One day, he hopes to recover not only the sensation in his non-existent feet but also his balance, which might be even better than it once was. Whereas he can already walk, climb stairs and jump as normal, he hopes that at some point in the future he will live without ever feeling pain, while also being able to run extremely fast and jump extremely high. His hopes are the same for the other 20 million people worldwide who are dependent on prosthetics to help them cope with daily life and achieve their goals.
There is cautious reflection in what he says, and yet it is still clear that Hugh Herr really does dream of a mankind that has ultimately been enhanced by technology. The idea behind his prosthetics isn’t just to give people who have lost limbs control over their lives once more. He has bigger goals: instead, even those who find themselves in the unfortunate position of possessing healthy, natural bodily functions ought to be given the chance to possess superhuman physical abilities.
Herr’s laboratory is developing a range of exoskeletons which aim to strengthen the body. Say you are wearing one and want to lift something very heavy – it will transfer the majority of the weight onto the artificial legs. In this way, people would be able to carry much heavier loads than previously and protect their body at the same time. Military purposes, fire departments, hiking… just a few of the potential uses that come to Herr’s mind. He predicts a future in which everyone will wear these exoskeletons simply to protect their legs and hips while running or doing strenuous work. “This will make us stronger and more efficient,” he explains. It should be wonderful. Never again will you be out of breath after great exertion.
The military application of such prosthetics and exoskeletons is a very hot topic. The American military, in particular, has for decades now been working with its private partners on soldier 2.0. He should need less sleep, be less sensitive to pain, be stronger and be able to cover greater distances. On that subject, a US Air Force General once said that the individual soldier should be endowed with the same capabilities as a fighter jet and that the soldier should be seen as a “system”. And the US Navy is currently testing exoskeletons which look like robot suits.
The “Iron Man” suit, as it is being called, could be used in military operations as early as 2018. The problem to date is that in many of the Navy’s areas of operation, there is no functioning electricity grid. Yet many of these suits can be worn even without a power source and soldiers can easily carry 90-100kg over long distances without feeling the full weight of the load.
From Soldier 2.0 to Cyborg
Hugh Herr covers a wide range of activities when it comes to the military application of his robotic body parts. He points out that the prosthetics business has boomed after every new war. The War on Terror that began after the attacks of 9/11 is no different in this regard. The events of that day have made “huge sums of money” available for the purpose, according to Herr. Which is why he advises veterans who have lost limbs in war and who have been told by their doctors that they will never be able to move again, to seek a second opinion.
Herr, the first cyborg professor at MIT, is sure of one thing: that his research is going to change the world. He believes he can plug the gap between ability and inability, between a healthy body and disability. He speaks of neural implants that will help the blind to see and of mechanical body parts that will offer full rehabilitation from every kind of physical impairment. “Nature drives design forward, but design drives nature forward, too.”