News & Perspectives

Human Augmentation

Human Augmentation

Blurring the line between man & machine
Perspective// Posted by: Breena Kerr / 12 Apr 2016
Prosthetics pioneer Hugh Herr

When MIT Professor Hugh Herr looks to the future, he sees a human race where flesh and bone are replaced by titanium technology. And he’s excited.

“Many people, “ Herr said, “believe that tissues are holy.” Herr doesn’t.

After losing his lower legs in a 1982 climbing accident, Herr returned to the slopes and built himself specialized prosthetics that allowed him use his limbs as ice tools —not possible with a biological leg. Now, as head of the pioneering Biomechatronics group at MIT, he walks the line between man and machine — personally and professionally.

Herr showed off his high-tech legs in a TED talk last year. The prosthetics, spring-loaded robotic devices (they look a bit like praying mantis feet crossed with Swiffers) react to the firing of muscles at the ends of his remaining legs. They allow him to stand and walk with relative ease.

But Herr claimed the prosthesis of the next decades will be infinitely more nimble, surpassing or augmenting the abilities of human arms and legs.

“Right now the communication channel (with the devices) is poor,” he said. “My limb (in the TED Talk) wasn’t getting a lot of information from my nervous system.”

“The electronic limbs of the future,” he projects, “will plug into the human spinal cord for a “high fidelity” expression of the wearer’s wants and needs. “Such neural implants”, he continued, “are the goal of most cutting-edge prosthesis labs. And once that happens, people with disabilities won’t be the only ones who want to use robotic devices as limbs.”

“If I could amputate your arm,” he said, “and build you a new arm without biological tissue in it — one that works as well or better than your biological arm did, with which you can feel and touch the face of your loved one and move and express—would you really care that it was metal, and not the tissues you were born with?”

A future where metal replaces flesh may not appeal to everyone, but Herr isn’t afraid of blurring the line between man and machine.

“Just because parts of our bodies are made of synthetic materials doesn’t mean, in my opinion, that we’re less human. I don’t think our humanity is inherent to the materials we’re made of. We can embed our humanity into anything we do.”

Breena Kerr
Breena Kerr, a freelance writer living in California who has worked for The Hustle and NBC