A bionic man: Hugh Herr strides forward on next-generation robotic legs

You’ll likely hear Hugh Herr before you see him.

The charismatic leader of MIT’s biomechatronics research group wears two next-generation prosthetic legs, each barely visible under the cuff of his gray slacks, which produce a faint percussive buzz with each footfall, like the sound of a tiny electric drill. The sound serves almost as a leitmotif—you hear it, faintly, as he ascends the stairs to his office in the glass-and-metal MIT Media Lab or as he ambles across the stage during a lecture.

Among futurists, Herr’s story is the stuff of legend. In the early 1980s, after he lost both legs below the knees to frostbite in a climbing accident in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, a doctor told him he would never climb again. Defiant, Herr used a local machine shop to hack together custom prostheses from rubber, metal, and wood. He designed a set of small feet that could find a foothold where his old pair would have slipped and a spiked set he could use to ascend the steepest walls of ice. He went on to become as confident a climber after his accident as he’d ever been before.

That process of redesigning elements of his own body became an epiphany for Herr. “I viewed the missing biological part of my body as an opportunity, a blank palette for which to create,” he told an audience at the 2015 Autodesk University conference.

That ethos has paved the way for an exceptional academic and public career that defies easy categorization. He earned degrees at MIT and Harvard and eventually became the head of MIT’s biomechatronics group, which has become a research titan under his leadership. In 2011, the same year he launched prosthetic maker BionX Medical Technologies—which created the BiOM prosthesis he wears daily—Time dubbed him the “leader of the bionic age.”

In a sunny room overlooking the airy biomechatronics gait-testing laboratory, Herr doesn’t mention those accolades. Instead, he frames his research as a moral imperative to fight against the pain and frustration caused by underwhelming interfaces between humans and machines—a path, he believes, that will lead to a world in which artificial limbs no longer chafe and bruise and where quadriplegics might walk again.

“My personal experience underscored for me how poorly designed the world is,” he says, “and the profound human suffering that’s caused by bad design.”

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