Hugh Herr isn’t just developing smarter, more capable bionic limbs. He’s redefining human potential and designing a world in which technology erases disability. More than the preeminent expert and technologist in his field, Herr is a living inspiration. His TED talk, which ended with a standing ovation and was viewed nearly seven million times, is a shining example of Herr’s ability to deliver engaging speeches that lift the hearts and minds of audiences across professions.
When technology meets biology, the interface is rarely flawless; the devices often hinder the bodies they’re designed to help. Herr, a renowned engineer and biophysicist who lost both legs in a climbing incident more than 30 years ago, believes technologists can, and must, do better. Today, as leader of MIT Media Lab’s Biomechatronics Group, he’s building the next generation of robotic prosthetics, sophisticated devices that aid human movement by mimicking nature. Coined “Leader of the Bionic Age” by TIME, Herr and his team are translating tricks the human body uses to move more efficiently into the science and technology that not only restores function to those who’ve lost it, but also enhances and extends their capabilities.
It’s rare for a researcher’s work and personal history to be so entwined. Herr walks on bionic legs his lab designed. As both an avid, accomplished rock climber and a prostheses user, he has direct experience with frustratingly poor prosthetic designs. He also has the drive – an athlete’s competitive spirit – to overcome them. As passionate as he is intense, Herr connects deeply with his audiences and moves them, encouraging everyone to see – and even share – his vision for melding technology with biology.
In addition to his Biomechatronics Group post, Herr is a professor of media arts and science at MIT Media Lab, as well as co-director of the MIT Center for Extreme Bionics. He is the author and co-author of more than 150 peer-reviewed manuscripts and patents chronicling the science and technology behind his many innovations – from computer-controlled artificial knees and active leg exoskeletons to powered ankle-foot prostheses – several of which were recognized as TIME Top Ten Inventions. Other accolades include the 13th Annual Heinz Award for Technology, the Economy and Employment; the Prince Salman Award for Disability Research; the Smithsonian American Ingenuity Award in Technology; the 14th Innovator of the Year Award; the 41st Inventor of the Year Award; and the 2016 Princess of Asturias Award for Technical & Scientific Research.
Herr is the founder of BionX Inc., a company that commercializes the EmPower Ankle-Foot Prosthesis, first in a series of products that will emulate physiological function through electromechanical replacement. Today, the EmPower Ankle-Foot Prosthesis has been clinically shown to be the first leg prosthesis in history to reach human normalization, allowing amputees to walk with normal levels of speed and metabolism as if their legs were biological once again.
Herr’s gripping story has been told in a National Geographic film, Ascent: The Story of Hugh Herr, as well as in episodes and articles featured in CNN, The Economist, Discover and Nature. He earned his master’s degree in mechanical engineering at MIT and his doctorate in biophysics at Harvard University.
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