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Hugh Herr moving mountains to end disability


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Hugh Herr moving mountains to end disability

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At the age of eight Hugh Herr was already a gifted mountaineer, by 17 he was considered one of the best mountain climbers in the United States.

Then calamity struck, while climbing a treacherous ice route on Mount Washington he and another climber became blinded and disorientated during a blizzard.

They spent three nights in minus 29 degree temperatures.

Upon rescue it was found both men has suffered severe frostbite.

As a result Hugh Herr underwent a bi-lateral below knee amputation.

He was dismayed when he was handed his first prosthesis.

From then on Hugh Herr, a man used to scaling the heights, began his modest mission to end disability.

Euronews reporter Chris Cummins met up with Hugh Herr in Oviedo as he collected his Princess of Asturias Award for Technical and Scientific Research.

Hugh Herr, Biometrics group director, MIT Media Lab:“What happened was. I was fitted with conventional technology. This was in 1982. I was just horrified. I said to myself: ‘how can this be it!’ They were made of wood and rubber. No computational intelligence. No sensors. No computers. No muscle-like actuation. I said to myself: ‘You have to be kidding me. There has to be more.’ Then I was inspired to begin designing.

My first task was to design my own limbs to enable me to return to my chosen sport, mountain climbing.”

Chris Cummins :“But had you a background in this kind of stuff?”

Hugh Herr:“In high school, to get out of academics, I pursued vocational school. So I knew how to make things out of wood and metal. So I went into the shop and started cutting and grinding. And it was very succesful. I quickly returned to climbing. And I quickly was at a level that exceeded my previous climbing abilities prior to my accident. So I was actually climbing better with artificial limbs that I ever achieved with biological limbs. So at that point I began to imagine a future world without disability. Imagine this narrative that occured with me and my body, imagine extending that across all of Humanity, and having advanced technology for the treatment of the blind, severely depressed individuals, the people who are paralysed, across all disabilities, to end disability.”

Chris Cummins:“So looking at your bionic limbs, if I may use the Steve Austin analogy?”

Hugh Herr:“Yes absolutely. Bionics is a good word.”

Chris Cummins:“How did we get there and explain to us how they work?”

Hugh Herr: “What I’m wearing are bionic limbs. They are fantastic. Each limb has three computers. Not big computers. They are small chips. Three computers. Twelve sensors that measure positions,speed, acceleration, temperatures, forces. And then decisions are made by the algorithms to control a muscle-like actuator. So they actually move and power every step that I take. They are electrically powered; so here is the battery that is charged in the evening. They are wonderful, they normalise my walking speed, my energetics, stresses through my Musculoskeletal system. So they are quite remarkable. The device has a lot of its own intelligence. And it figures out from positions and forces that I apply to it, what I want. In the laboratory we are doing neural control. We are actually linking to the muscles and the nerves to talk to the microprocessors and computers on board.

So a person like me can voluntarily control my bionics. And also eventually one day receive sensory feedback from the artificial limb into my nervous system, so that I can actually feel the limb…”

Chris Cummins:“Feel…feeling?”

Hugh Herr:“Yes. This is all going on in the research domain. And very soon it will be put in the commercial domain.”

Chris Cummins:’‘Speaking of the commercial domain… this is a huge industry, generates billions of dollars. It is high-end stuff. What about poorer people? Victims of land mines, for example? Is there an avenue to make this available to people who have suffered such traumas?”

Hugh Herr:“Yes, in my research centre at MIT, we do have an aspect of the research looking at how do you maintain the quality of medical treatment at dramatically lower costs and improved accessibility. Part of that capability is local fabrication, so that local communities can fabricate high tech devices. And part of that is more scientifically understand how the design runs. So you can exploit scale and mass production. But still have it deeply personalised?

What we are working on at MIT is to actually create a digital human, where every individual has a digital self. And when one needs a bra, a pair of legs, eyeglasses, a neural implant, the digital self will be used. A very accurate representation of the individual. And then
these very sophisticated designed computational frameworks that deeply understand humanity, what it is to be human, and what it means to interface to a human.”

Chris Cummins:“Have you got any of the ethics brigade on your case?”

Hugh Herr:“It is a common question. There are ethical issues… Listen, we have an opportunity in this century to essentially end disability. To end disease. I mean, the level of human suffering today because of our flawed bodies, our flawed minds, our flawed environments is beyond comprehension. So we have that tremendous opportunity. Yes, there are ethical dilemmas, ethical risks. There is work to be done there. But we have to end disease and disabilities. We just have to. It is the right thing to do. We therefore, in parallel to this wonderful effort to end disease and disability, we have to develop responsible policy, and laws to deal with unintended and inappropriate usage of augmentation technology.

We are working on a lot of exciting things. Again, how they interface to the peripheral nerves and muscles to get information out of the nervous system and into the nervous system, better mechatronics, improved ways of mechanical attachments of designed synthetics to the human body. So really developing the fundamental science of bionics and this interplay between human physiology, innate physiology, and the designed world.

Chris Cummins:“Well as my meniscus begins to give me pain, you will bounce up and down the supermarket aisle. Congratulations on your Princess of Asturias Award.
It was magnificent to meet you. You are doing an incredible job.”

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