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Interview with Hugo Herr

Aired March 25, 2012 - 14:00   ET


DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to THE NEXT LIST. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta. You're about to meet Hugh Herr. He's an innovator, a scientist, and you could call him a bionic man.


HUGO HERR, INNOVATOR: I don't see disability, I really don't. I see bad technology, but I don't see broken people.


GUPTA: Herr invents technology that augment human function, machines that merge with our own bodies, exoskeletons that we wear like pants that allow us to run long distances without getting winded or getting pain.

Bionic prosthetic limbs that move like flesh and bone. It all starts right here in MIT's Media Lab and Hugh's Biomechatronics Group. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta and this is THE NEXT LIST.


HUGH HERR, BIOMECHATRONICS GROUP, MIT MEDIA LAB: In the Biomechatronics Group here at MIT, the mission is to blur the boundaries between humans and machines.

What we do here is we build robots that attach to the body, to the legs that augment a person's physicality. Allows them to move again when they're not able to move.

GUPTA: Why do you call them robots that attach to the body?

HERR: We're developing very advanced systems. I would call them bionic systems stealing from the Hollywood. They're robotic because they have sensors on. They have computers, various computers across their structure. They have motor muscle-like, with tendon-like systems that push and change stiffness and dampen allow a person to move again across varied terrains.

GUPTA: Hugh Herr knows he's able to fine-tune his bionic legs unlike anyone else in his field. Because he was not only a brilliant innovator, but he's also a double amputee.

HERR: I'm careful never to use the word "disabled" when describing human beings. I quickly realized after my limbs were amputated that I no longer viewed my biological body as broken, as disabled. Instead, I viewed those things as broken and disabled.

GUPTA: How do most prosthetics, if I use that term, how do most prosthetics work now?

HERR: For the most part, devices for the leg are passive. What I mean by that is the energy that the person puts into the device is the only energy that they get out, and often it's less energy. With a bionic device, that's not true. You get a lot more energy out than you put in from your own human energy.

GUPTA: The term bionics gets thrown around here a lot, which I think is very exciting.

HERR: Just another day in the life.

GUPTA: But what are we looking at here? Can you describe it to me?

HERR: This is an early prototype to think about the calf muscle, that spans both the ankle and the knee. This device only emulates muscles that cross the ankle.

So we're exploring what it would be like to have that key muscle, the calf muscle that goes across the knee as well. So it's really coupling the knee to the ankle.

GUPTA: Maybe this is an obvious answer, but what's the advantage of that? What would that offer?

HERR: We don't know? That's why it's science. It surprises people when they find out that the scientific community does not yet deeply, deeply understand something as common as walking. But we're getting there.

We're starting to develop mathematical models where we can say, that muscle does this. That muscle does this. I'm just in love, enamored with the design of the human body. It's elegance.

We steal from the cookie jar of nature and we apply that and we build synthetic constructs that emulates that functionality. So what he's wearing here is an emulation of the biological knee joint.

GUPTA: Can we see the whole thing then, above the --

HERR: Yes.

GUPTA: So it extends all the way up?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All the way up.

HERR: So Sanjay, we spend years developing prototype after prototype after prototype. It reiterating and iterating. It's far worse than commercial devices. But in the end, we often come above the water and offer a clinical benefit.

When my legs were amputated, obviously, a lot of critical nerves were amputated, were cut. So those nerves use to feed muscles that I used to have in my lower legs.

So what we want to do this in field of bionics long-term is to be able to talk to nerves, both collecting how a person wants to move and sending that out to a bionic device and stimulating into the nerves, into the nervous system.

So we can then take sensory information and reflect it on the nervous system. And the dream is that one day amputees will no longer be able to walk across sand but actually feel sand against their synthetic device.

I'm often asked if I was granted a wish from a magic fairy, would I wish my biological legs back? And I always say, absolutely not. My bionic limbs are part of my creation. They've become part of my identity. And what's really fun is they're upgradeable.

So every few months, I get a hardware and software upgrade. And as my biological body ages, my artificial limbs get better and better. So it's interesting that I'm kind of getting better and better, at least that part of my body, anyway.

It perhaps sounds mad to some people that I had this mountain climbing accident and I immediately turned around and returned to mountain climbing. But it was, in fact, tremendous therapy.




HERR: It's interesting, because I grew up in a devout Mennonite family and our neighbors were Amish and there's kind of a suspicion within those communities of technological progress. So it's fascinating now that I'm pushing the boundaries of technology.

I started mountain climbing when I was 7 years old. I grew up in a very adventurous family. Every summer, we would go on these extended road trips across North America. Sometimes across Canada into Alaska and these trips would last for three months.

And we would fish and canoe and climb mountains. And by the age of 12, 13, I was considered a child prodigy in climbing. I was climbing walls that had never been climbed before. At that point in my life, my focus was to be the best climber in the world. My focus was not at all academics.

In fact, I did everything to get out of school. In 1982, I was mountain climbing in New Hampshire on Mt. Washington, the highest mountain in the northeast. We were ice climbing an 800-foot wall. With ice axes and crampons and we got struck by a tremendous blizzard, and what was intended to be a single day turned into a four-day period.

Because we were on the mountain longer period of time than expected, there was a search and rescue that was launched. One of the climbers, Albert Dale was struck by an avalanche and killed. So when we were plucked from the mountain via helicopter and told of this tragic, horrible news, it was profoundly difficult for me to deal with personally.

I suffered severe frostbite to my lower legs and after months of effort, my medical team gave up the fight to save my biological limbs. I thought, I have two choices, I can give up and wallow in depression and self-pity or I can really make a best effort, do everything I can to make my life into a positive force.

And I thought given Albert Dale's ultimate sacrifice, I thought of course, the right thing to do was to make my life worthwhile.

GUPTA: What was available to you back then in the early mid-80s?

HERR: Back then the foot ankle was made of wood and foam and stiff metal. The devices were heavy, non-adaptive. Just, they were dumb. There's no better term for it.

After two weeks in the rehab center, the rehab center made the mistake of allowing me to take my artificial limbs home for the weekend, and it was that weekend that my brother took me out climbing again.

So I could barely get to the face of the mountain, because I could barely walk, but once I got to the vertical world, I was like a quadriped on all fours, and I was home. It felt completely natural. I was home again.

And it was a rocket out of my anger and depression. Only a few months after my limbs were amputated and I was climbing with the artificial limbs that were given to me, I realized that, you know, the -- my artificial limb that I use for mountain climbing need not look like a biological limb.

So I said, with I don't need a heel, so I cut the heel off. It was just extra weight. And I optimized the angle of the foot and I made them very, very lightweight, far lighter than human flesh.

So I actually carved out a few advantages. It was a fun process. So I have two daughters. Sage is 6 and Alex is 9. And I'm really proud of them. They're just amazons. They're actually with their mother.

Their mother's been taking them out and climbing mountains. Both of them, by the age of 6, they climbed all of the highest mountains, the white mountains in New Hampshire.

And now in addition to that, they're climbing all the highest points across the United States. It's fun to see my daughters climbing mountains, because I climbed mountains when I was their age.

A little older than they are, but it's kind of a flashback for me, because I see them. They, of course, look a lot like me, and I kind of -- it's like looking at myself when I was a child. It's wonderful.

GUPTA: So what's that like for you?

HERR: It's exhilarating.



GUPTA: Welcome back to THE NEXT LIST. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta. Hugh Herr believes there is no such thing as a disabled person. There are just disabled technologies. And at his company I walk, he and his team are creating cutting edge prosthetics using a revolutionary device called the bio.


GUPTA: You call it the bio, which stands for what?

HERR: Bionic motion. Here you see the biom. Inside this metal shield, we have a multiple tendon-like what we call actuator motor system. We have various censors, about 12 censors. We also have several computers. There are three computers. Here's the battery, the power supply.

GUPTA: People walk, they put their heel down to their toe. They're bending their knee slightly when they walk. You can tell when someone has an older-type prosthetic device, the walking is unnatural.

HERR: Do you want to race?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No. I do not want to race now.

GUPTA: How about with you? What's different?

HERR: There's a lot that's different. These offer control when the foot's in contact with the ground and when the foot's off the ground. These actually propel me forward. So I can do all kinds of things, run, walk at all speeds and run up steps and all kinds of things.

GUPTA: Let's go. So what's that like for you?

HERR: It's exhilarating. It's boom, boom, boom.

GUPTA: Something you didn't -- I mean, you're sprinting up stairs with bilateral below the knee amputations.

HERR: Pretty amazing?

GUPTA: Is that something you'd ever thought you'd be able to do?

HERR: No, no. And to hear those motors going, it's fantastic. I feel like the bionic man. Hello, hello.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Dr. Herr, thank you very, very much. This is the best thing since bread and butter.

HERR: Years ago, at MIT, I had written a grand and submitted to the veterans administration, the veteran affairs, and that grant was funded and we used that money at MIT to develop really the science of how the human ankle behaves and then mapping that to how you'd build a synthetic device that emulates that functionality.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: My name is Ed Lestowski. In 1967, I joined the Army and I was medically retired in 1984 after having a motorcycle accident on the 7th of August, 1981, where I took off most of my thigh, broke my femur, severed the artery in my right arm.

HERR: I wanted to focus biom on the ankle joint, initially. Because when a person walks, by far they're getting the most power from their ankle, compared to any other joint in the body.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I had 39 operations between all the hospitals and West Roxbury was the last one and that was number 40. And that was the amputation.

HERR: What we plan to do and will do is systemically build body parts from the ground up, literally. So we're starting with ankles. The next act of I-walk is knees and after that it will be hips and we'll just rebuild the human from the ground up.

Go up the shallow ramp, and then, if you would, down this steep ramp either way.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I feel more like a human being, complete, whereas, you know, I can watch people in the eye as I walk down the street instead of watching the ground or where I'm stepping. It's, you know, being a normal person again. It's fantastic. You can't beat it.

HERR: I found that in I-walk that I could actually help advance technology that people will use in my lifetime. And I can see the direct results of my invention, my ideas, on the world. So it's fun being both the scientist and the professor and also the entrepreneur, where I can directly affect society in the short-term.




HERR: This is a knee exoskeleton designed for running. The idea is in the future, when people go jogging, they'll routinely wear robots like this to relieve the stress from their joints, so that maybe later in life, they don't need total knee replacements, for example.

GUPTA: What do you notice when you use this versus not?

GRANT ELLIOT, MIT BIOMECHATRONICS GROUP: It's a strange sensation. It's been compared to running on a trampoline. With every step, there's clearly something that's pushing you back.

HERR: Our bodies are not designed for running on hard surfaces like cement. So I think in the future, when you walk down the street, you'll routinely see people jogging wearing robots, to just protect their joints for later in life.

What I imagine occurring in the 21st Century is that technology will just become more and more like us, like humans. As the science of our minds and bodies advance, we'll just have this deep understanding of what making us tick as humans and we're going to embed those principles in all the technologies around us.

So one thing that we'll see is how technology will change the nature of sport. I like the story of the South African sprinter, I consider a watershed individual. Because his athleticism with those artificial limbs is forcing society to begin to grapple with these interesting questions of what does it mean to be human.

And how in the context of advanced technology do you ensure freedom of access of human beings at sporting events such as the Olympics, but also fairness of sport. And I believe the fairness to that dilemma is more technology, not less technology.

In the future, we're going to have a limb that truly emulates a biological limb. And that will be the Olympic-sanctioned technology. We will also see in this century, because of all these new inventions that augment our bodies the invention of many, many new sports.

So looking in the past, there was this great invention called the bicycle and now we have this fantastic sport called cycling. In the future, we'll have devices that attach to our bodies that extend our abilities to swim, to climb, to run. We'll have power swimming, power running, and so on and so forth.

The future is bright. What we're showing you here today, if we project 20 years later, it will be laughable. Innovation is happening so rapidly. We're just getting started. What will happen, I feel, is that, you know, now in society, we have a very narrow view of what beauty is.

You know, a beautiful woman kind of looks like this and a beautiful man kind of looks like this. And in that future, you can have all kinds of different human beings with body types and different types of minds and it won't be ugly.

Because it won't -- the conversation won't be about disability, it will be about capability, about ability, about expression. So I call it the death of normalcy.


GUPTA: Hugh Herr is changing the way we see disability and challenging world to look at it not as a setback, but as an amazing opportunity. He is constantly pushing the bounds of where machine beats body, and that's what earns him a spot on THE NEXT LIST.

For more on this episode and other agents of change, please go to and join me on my live stream at It's a one stop spot for all my videos, blogs, tweets and behind the scenes photos.

Thanks for joining us. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta. We'll see you next Sunday, right back here.