Hugh Herr and the future of bionics

by in Science & Health, Technology.

Hugh Herr speaks at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. Getty Images

Hugh Herr speaks at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. Getty Images

Eliminating all human disabilities within this century sounds like the stuff of fantasy — a pipe dream achievable only in fiction. Yet Dr. Hugh Herr of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab and head of the BioMechatronic Research Group promises to do just that.

In an address at the Blouin Creative Leadership Summit in New York this week, Herr unveiled the work already accomplished in the field of bionics and the potential of bionic technology to not only change how human bodies heal, but how their minds can heal. Introducing Herr, Nicholas Negroponte, co-founder and director of the MIT Media Lab called him “the man who is going to eliminate all human disabilities, physical and mental.”

Herr proposes a future where physical impairment no longer exists — and adds that it will happen in this century. A bilateral amputee, stemming from a climbing accident as a teenager, Herr developed the bionic limbs that he now wears, which he uses to climb, play tennis, and run, among other physical activities. In his address about the “new era of extreme bionics,” Herr described the work he and his team have done to biomechanically repair human physical disability, and how, eventually, this same technology will augment human capability.

Herr and the Center for Extreme Bionics focus on four chapters of bionics: how to get information in and out of the central brain, peripheral (nerves and muscles) system, how to build biomechatronic body parts, and how to build regenerative body parts.

Herr says that despite not having very good tools to interface with the brain, optogenetics is “getting us to a world where we can have compelling interventions to brain genetics.” He noted that new interfaces to the brain “will allow a new level of specificity and accuracy previously unseen.”

Going into the body for the peripheral work has led to the development of osseo-neural implants which have totally changed the potential for amputees. Titanium shafts and wires woven through the neural system are part of the new technological approach that is reframing the possibilities for those with prosthetic and bionic limbs.

Biomechatronics involves designing body parts that act like natural ones, and regenerative bionics looks at how to build body parts out of new tissues. Indeed, recent tests on a few human patients have resulted in the retrieval of bodily functions after paralysis.

But, of course, all of these technological potentials will have an impact on the future of human identity. Herr believes that human identity is “plastic and malleable.” At some point, humans will have “many ways to change themselves.” And, eventually, the “human body will become like clay, transformable.”

As Herr notes, “disability can be overcome with innovation.” Now, public policy needs to catch up to bionics in order for disability to be eliminated in this century and in order to “mitigate unintended detrimental uses of this technology.” We have the creative power; Herr is harnessing it.