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

Former CIA Officers Tony and Jonna Mendez to Discuss 'Argo' at Next Lecture

April 23, 2015

Kathryn Kuehn

Hugh Herr’s lecture showcased the most recent developments in bionics and prosthetics, and pointed to a bright future for those like Kathryn Kuehn of Richardson. “His talk gave me hope for the future," Kuehn said.

Last year, Richardson resident 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 all that goes into raising two children.

When Kuehn saw that bionics expert Hugh Herr would be speaking at the UT 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 10 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.

Dr. Hugh Herr

Hugh Herr, who heads the biomechatronics research group at the MIT Media Lab, is creating bionic limbs that match the function of natural limbs.

“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, Herr’s team of doctors leading 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 prosthetics 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.

Hugh Herr,
associate professor who heads the biomechatronics research group at the MIT Media Lab

“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. 

Herr 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 prosthetics 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.”

Hugh Herr with students in Dr. Gregg's lab

Before his lecture, Herr met with a handful of UT Dallas faculty and students. Here, engineering PhD students Hanqi Zhu (center) and Toby Elery describe the work they are doing in the Locomotor Control Systems Laboratory.

Media Contact: Chaz Lilly, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2158, [email protected]
or the Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected].


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