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‘Bionic man’ Hugh Herr speaks at UVU on future of tech and disabilities

By Braley Dodson daily Herald - | Mar 7, 2018
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Hugh Herr, head of MIT Media Lab's Biomechatronics group, speaks during a presentation as part of the Presidential Lecture Series on Wednesday, March 7, 2018, at Utah Valley University in Orem. Isaac Hale, Daily Herald

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Hugh Herr, head of MIT Media Lab's Biomechatronics group, walks about as he speaks to the media on Wednesday, March 7, 2018, at Utah Valley University in Orem. Isaac Hale, Daily Herald

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Hugh Herr, head of MIT Media Lab's Biomechatronics group, speaks during a presentation as part of the Presidential Lecture Series on Wednesday, March 7, 2018, at Utah Valley University in Orem. Isaac Hale, Daily Herald

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Julianna Fotheringham, a freshman at UVU studying business, listens as Hugh Herr, head of MIT Media Lab's Biomechatronics group, speaks during a presentation as part of the Presidential Lecture Series on Wednesday, March 7, 2018, at Utah Valley University in Orem. Isaac Hale, Daily Herald

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Hugh Herr, head of MIT Media Lab's Biomechatronics group, speaks during a presentation as part of the Presidential Lecture Series on Wednesday, March 7, 2018, at Utah Valley University in Orem. Isaac Hale, Daily Herald

Frostbite took both of Hugh Herr’s legs after a climbing accident on Mount Washington in New Hampshire. After having his legs amputated, the 17-year-old rock climber looked to his doctors and asked what was next. They told him he’d never return to rock climbing.

That didn’t last long.

After the accident in 1982, Herr, who said he didn’t know at the time what a percent was, dove into math, science and engineering, which led to Herr becoming a pioneer in the bionic limb field, designing the bionic legs he now uses and leading the Biomechatronics group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab.

“You cannot with a straight face say I am disabled,” Herr told a group at Utah Valley University in Orem.

UVU brought him to campus Wednesday as the spring speaker in the Presidential Lecture Series.

He demonstrated his legs, which include multiple computers and sensors that mimic muscles. The high tech legs allow him to run and walk normally and make a light squeaking noise as he moves.

But at the end of the day, his legs are still a tool. They allow him to move in the same way biological legs would, but he can’t feel them — yet.

Herr shared research with the UVU crowd including how maps of the brain and tools can hopefully target specific parts of the brain, which can lead to solutions to blindness, depression and schizophrenia. His group is also working on ways to make the brain have control over bionic limbs.

It’s research that turns artificial limbs into parts of the body.

Herr also sees the future including changes to how limbs are amputated, which he said is a process that currently includes stitching muscles to bone and hasn’t changed since the Civil War.

Herr said the future of bionics includes ways to eliminate physical limitations and would allow for individuals to design themselves.

“As we march into the 21st century we will systematically eliminate limitation after limitation and I think that even at the halfway point of this century most disabilities will be gone,” Herr said.

The future also includes a shift in how people look at those with disabilities. Herr said he doesn’t like the word “disability” and considers himself to have an unusual body. He pointed to poor eyesight as a limitation and glasses as a prosthetic that aren’t seen as one.

“We are so used to eyeglasses that we don’t think that person is less because they use glasses,” Herr said.

But the technology also comes with ethical implications, like if a government tried to use technology that can solve depression to make everyone in a nation happy, or if parents want to design their children.

“Those are very difficult questions we have to ask in the future,” Herr said.

Herr said disability and disease need to be solved while keeping individual rights and valuing human diversity.

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