Dr. Hugh Herr, MIT professor, head of Biomechatronics and founder of iWalk, was the first keynote at ESC Boston on Tuesday, September 21st. While more details about his life story can be found on MIT pages or Wikipedia, the piece of his history that was most influential was when he lost his legs below the knee at age 17 in a tragic hiking accident. From that point forward, he devoted his life towards the study of advancing the field of biomechatronics and dreaming up a full featured prosthesis for his own use. For many years now, he has been about to walk, run and even mountain climb with various application-specific prosthetic terminations that allow him very advanced capabilities (such as the spikes needed for ice climbing).
Throughout the talk, Hugh highlighted the work of his colleagues at MIT and other universities. True cutting edge technologies spanning brainwave monitoring and computer control, magnetically induced mood alteration (to treat depression), a "social emotional prosthesis" for to assist people with autism and personable robots that would be able to respond in a more human way to human problems. All of these examples led up to a profound statement by Dr. Herr:
There are no disabled people in the world, only disabled technology [because of] poor design.
When the topic of disabilities is expanded beyond the physical to the emotional and cognitive areas, over 50% of the population of the US has some type of disability. With technology, these simply become "conditions" that need some technology in order to quell the effects of said condition. And who among engineers doesn't believe that some day this will become a reality?
Moving forward, the team at MIT will continue to advance the field of biomechatronics and begin to integrate nerve communication; already they have worked with local companies to graft electrical connections to nerve interfaces. Further integration of prostheses into the human body will begin with direct titanium implants connected to human bones. And most impressively, they are growing human skins cells over top of the titanium implants, in order to use the natural ability of the body to fight off external bacteria and impurities. The biological will truly merge with the technological in the very near future. When speaking about nerve implants, including the ones he is scheduled to have implanted in the near future, he said:
One day amputees won't only be able to walk across a beach, they'll be able to feel the sand against their synthetic skin.
As an engineer, I was blown away by the technology. As a nerd, I loved (and was a bit jealous of) the ability to "have [his] hardware and software in his legs updated every 3 weeks" (latest update was last night!). And as a fellow human being, I was inspired by the progress Dr. Hugh Herr and his team have made in the field of computer assisted human motion.
Chris Gammell is an analog engineer and writer from Cleveland, Ohio. His latest project is The Amp Hour, a radio show devoted to electronics.