Professor developed high tech prosthetics after losing limbs to frostbite at 17
Bionic man Hugh Herr on his robot legs and making great strides in technology
Six foot, two inches tall, Hugh Herr makes a commanding figure as he strides across the hotel lobby of the Jumeirah at Etihad Towers.
At family gatherings back home in the US, he towers a several inches above his brothers, in what must be the ultimate act of sibling one-upmanship.
His height, though, is not the reason Mr Herr turns heads wherever he goes. Dressed in a dark suit, the trousers end just below the knees, as do his legs.
Below is a complex amalgam of metal, sensors, batteries and microcomputers that mean the Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor is wearing the ultimate prosthetic.
It allows him to walk and run as if his legs were real flesh and bone. It also means, within limits, Mr Herr can make himself as tall as he wants to be.
It is more than 30 years since he lost his legs to frostbite. He was 17 and climbing with a friend in New Hampshire’s White Mountains when a blizzard struck. On the verge of death, he was found by a mountain rescue team, but doctors had no choice but to amputate the lower limbs.
“When my limbs were amputated, society projected on to me this notion that I was broken, crippled, that my life had ended,” he recalls.
“A sense of pity was projected on to me.”
He was fitted with his first artificial legs in 1982, heavy plastic prosthetics that emphasised appearance above function.
“They were rigid, without computation intelligence, without sensing, without muscle-like actuation,” he says. “Dead. Inert. Pieces of sticks.”
All the negatives from those early days have been eliminated in the limbs he wears today. He has turned the terrible loss he experienced as a teenager into a life’s work in biomechanics, a field that develops robotic systems to augment the human body and rehabilitate those who have suffered similar losses.
It is something he is passionate about, arriving in Abu Dhabi for a flying visit during which he enthralled the audience with a talk at the Ramadan majlis of the Crown Prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces.
The event, he tells The National afterward, “went very well. It was well received.”
He has hopes of further discussions at MIT later this year, with the idea of setting up a centre of excellence in the UAE.
Two hours after speaking at the majlis and with a 7am flight to Madrid looming, Mr Herr retains his enthusiasm for his work despite the jet lag. It is something he developed at an early age.
Most people believed he would never climb again. Instead, he developed prosthetics designed for use on the rock face that could also make him taller or shorter depending on conditions. It made him a better climber than he had been before, better even than many climbers with real legs.
The legs he wears now – ending this evening in a pair of well-polished boots – feature a computerised ankle and foot that exactly replicates the function of a real limb as he moves. He calls them “wearable robots.”
He makes no attempt to disguise them, wearing rolled trousers most of the time, even in public. There has, he says, been a shift in public perception that sees the technology available to amputees as cool. Does this bother him? “No, I think it’s cool as well.”
Society’s attitude to people like himself “changes very precipitously when the technology becomes adequately powerful to eliminate the disability,” he says.
“Because I walk normally, because I can run because, I am not disabled. Because of bionics that I celebrate the fact that I have an amputation.”
He tells a story from this April, when he was flying out of Boston just a day after the city's marathon.
“I was going through Logan Airport like this with my pants rolled up, and three different people came up to me and said ‘did you run the marathon?’
“And they had a twinkle in their eye that suggested not only did they believe that I ran the marathon, but that I won the marathon. Because to them I was a superhero, I was bionic.”
There is another Boston marathon story. Of a young dancer called Adrianne Haslet-Davis, who lost a leg when the event was hit by a terrorist bomb in 2013. A year later, wearing a bionic leg, she was brought on stage during a TED talk by Mr Herr, pirouetting effortlessly in front of the audience in a performance that reduced everyone to tears.
Mr Herr upgrades his own legs every month as the technology improves. He expects the next breakthrough in a new generation of micro motors, and batteries whose life will be measured in days rather than hours.
All this also underlines that this is an expensive business. How can it be made available to an orphan maimed by bomb in Syria or an Afghan peasant who has lost a leg to a landmine?
This is the story of all technology, he says, picking up his iPhone. “The fact that something as technologically advanced as this is appearing all over the world, in many, many communities, is a clear example that humanity is capable of disseminating advanced technology.
He admits that the technology he has developed is so far available to only 15 per cent of the US market, let alone the developing world, although he is working with insurance companies to expand this at least in the US.
“But as we scale and more people use it in greater volume, the prices will be reduced. And also by local communities fabricating devices.”
His view of the next generation of bionic limbs is equally optimistic. “I think with funding, we can solve limb amputation in 20 years, meaning we will have the capability of rebuilding a limb out of bionics with the same functionality, perhaps even greater functionality, as the innate physiological limb.”
Is this vision we caught a glimpse of in Star Wars, where Luke Skywalker loses his hand in lightsaber fight with Darth Vader, only to have a perfect bionic replica fitted in the next scene?
“Absolutely. You will feel, you will touch, you will move.” It is a concept he calls neurological embodiment:
“True integration of design technology with the nervous system," he says.
"If you ask a person what is their body, they actually include the designed part.”
It is technology that offers potential beyond amputees. “If you wake up and your hand is stiff and painful, and we live in a world where technology is sufficient that we can rebuild your arm and hand to be as good as it was when you were 18? The rational decision is to upgrade.”
It will also usher in an age of super humans, real bionic men and women. “The Olympics is a celebration of what innate physiologies can do at the extremes of performance. The Paralympics is a celebration of human machine interaction, like race car driving or sailing.
“So if the Paralympics doesn’t limit technology, the running times, the jumping heights will all be superior to the Olympics.
“When that happens the Olympics will be absolutely boring, when augmented bodies can jump higher and run faster."
“It will be a fun century for sports,” he predicts.
“We are going to invent power swimming, bionic climbing bionic running and that will lead to all new sports.”