OREM — If you think bionic people only exist in popular 1970s TV shows, you probably haven't met Dr. Hugh Herr. He has been called the real-life Bionic Man.
"How I would describe myself is: 'I have a fairly unusual body,'" he said.
Herr has 12 sensors and three computers in his bionic legs, which make his movements "powered" instead of "passive," he says.
"I'm basically a power tool," Herr quipped as he addressed Utah Valley University students as part of the school's Presidential Lecture Series Wednesday.
Herr, an accomplished rock climber, lost his legs at the knees due to frostbite when he and a friend got stranded trying to climb Mount Washington. He was only 17, according to Business Insider.
Before that, he said, he "was not so great of a student" in high school.
"If I don't care, I don't learn," he said.
After losing his legs, he was given a reason to care. He then discovered a "deep love" of science and mathematics. He continued climbing and climbing even better than before because of the synthetics he created, he said.
Now he is a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and heads the biomechatronics group at the MIT Media Lab, where he works on cutting-edge research to create bionic limbs for amputees, "closing the loop" between humans and their bionic limbs.
"It's helpful to not only design synthetics, but to design the body itself," he said.
For example, amputations have been performed the same way since the Civil War, according to Herr. He and his team are working on ways to perform amputations to restore natural muscle kinetics, which can enable bionic limbs to "not only sense the person's desire to move, but also to enable us to feed back information … giving the patient critical sensations," he said.
With the bionic limbs his team has created, "the learning curve is remarkably short" and often "seamless," he said, noting that when an amputee first learns how to walk on bionic limbs, "the person knows those mechanics already."
Today, bionic limbs are expensive. Their warranties last for three years, but they are designed to last five years, Herr said.
To fund its research, the biomechatronics group received $5 million from the U.S. Army. Herr and his business colleagues then raised $60 million from venture capitalists, he said.
They have fitted 2,000 people for limbs so far, half of whom have been U.S. soldiers.
"As we understand more deeply the science of bionics, you'll see a greater and greater frequency of output from folks like myself," he said. "Humanity is capable of designing and manufacturing something very, very complex, technological, and getting it at a minimal cost."1 comment on this story
Herr also discussed the way bionic technology will play out in the future. He believes within the next 20 to 50 years, people may be able to "augment themselves" and "sculpt their physicality, sculpt their brain, sculpt their experience.
"In the future, designers will be able to design themselves," he said.
These technologies could provide cures for a variety of mental and physical ailments from anxiety to cerebral palsy, he said. However, moral questions could arise.
For example, will a future Van Gogh lose his creative genius as he is cured of depression? What if parents could design their future babies?
"We need to mitigate unintended nefarious uses," he cautioned.