“I imagine a future so advanced that we could rid the world of disability,” says Hugh Herr. The director of the Biomechatronics Group at the MIT Media Lab, Herr builds bionic limbs that emulate our natural physiology. Born out of his own experience—Herr is a former rock climbing prodigy and double amputee—his work is expanding the limitations of the human body. His talks are nothing short of transcendent.
The “Leader of the Bionic Age” (TIME), Hugh Herr’s MIT Media Lab research group develops wearable robotic systems that augment human strength, endurance, and agility. Their groundbreaking projects include computer-controlled artificial knees, the world’s first powered ankle-foot prosthesis, and exoskeletons that support muscular performance. As Herr says, “through fundamental advancements in bionics in this century, we will set the technological foundation for an enhanced human experience, and we will end disability.”
In January 1982, while attempting to summit Mount Washington in New Hampshire, Herr and a fellow climber were caught in a blizzard and stranded on the mountain for three nights in -20F degree temperatures. By the time they were rescued, the climbers had suffered severe frostbite. Both of Herr’s legs were amputated below the knees. Using prostheses that he designed, Herr became the first person in history with a major amputation to compete at an elite level against persons with normal physiologies. He now wears his design for the world’s first bionic foot and calf system: the BiOM. Herr’s designs have twice been named Top Ten Inventions in health by TIME. He is the recipient of the Heinz Award for Technology, the Economy, and Employment, and is the subject of Discovery Channel’s feature story Second Ascent, The Story of Hugh Herr and the National Geographic film Ascent: The Story of Hugh Herr.