Episode 46 & 47: Pioneer Through the Pandemic with Professor & Innovator, Dr. Hugh Herr

about the episode

For our fourth episode of our Alchemy Series, sponsored by Wells Fargo and Prudential, there is no greater example of harnessing adversity than No Barriers co-founder, Hugh Herr. In his early 20s, Hugh had both of his legs amputated after a tragic mountain climbing accident. An avid rock-climber, he was determined to return to the sport. Hugh created new iterations of prosthetic limbs for legs and feet he could use to climb even better than before.

Watch some of his videos in the resources below to see his technology in action!

Inspired by his own self-improvement through tech he set out to change the world for others. Now, Hugh heads the Biomechatronics group at the MIT Media Lab, where his team is creating bionic limbs that emulate the function of natural limbs; providing greater mobility and new hope to those with physical disabilities. 

He is the author and co-author of more than 150 peer-reviewed papers and patents, chronicling the science and technology behind his many innovations. These publications span the scientific fields of biomechanics and biological motion control, as well as the technological innovations of human rehabilitation and augmentation technologies. As published in the Journal of NeuroEngineering and Rehabilitation in 2014, Herr’s team advanced the first autonomous exoskeleton to reduce the metabolic cost of human walking, a goal that has eluded scientists for over a century. 


» Hear an extended version of our interview with Hugh here (full transcript).

We’ve created the following Tip Sheet to guide your learning experience.

Download the full PDF version here.

interview with hugh herr tip sheet

Episode Transcript

Hugh: To create something in the world that doesn't yet exist, you have to believe that it can exist. You have to have faith because whenever you're trying to create something new, everyone tells you it can't be done. So you have to have so much faith that you climb over that mountain of the naysayers. If you don't have that emotional philosophical framework, you cannot create anything new in the world.

Erik: It's easy to talk about the successes, but what doesn't get talked about enough is the struggle. My name is Eric Weihenmayer. I've gotten the chance to ascend Mount Everest, to climb the tallest mountain in every continent, to kayak the Grand Canyon, and I happen to be blind. It's been a struggle to live what I call a no barriers life, to define it, to push the parameters of what it means. And part of the equation is diving into the learning process and trying to illuminate the universal elements that exist along the way. In that unexplored terrain between those dark places we find ourselves in and the summit exists a map. That map, that way forward is what we call no barriers.

Dave: Today we meet Hugh Herr, who Time magazine described as the leader of the bionic age. Hugh is a professor of media arts and sciences at the MIT Media Lab and co-director of the MIT Center for Extreme Bionics. Hugh creates bionic limbs that emulate the function of natural limbs. A double amputee himself, his breakthrough advances provide greater mobility and new hope to those with physical disabilities.

Dave: Welcome to our new weekly No Barriers podcast series, where we continue to explore this extraordinary moment in our lives while remaining true to the theme we have always emphasized what's within you is stronger than what's in your way. Special thanks to Prudential and Wells Fargo for their generous support of this podcast series. Eric, can't wait to talk to Hugh. Hugh, welcome to the conversation.

Hugh: Thank you. Happy to be here.

Dave: Are you in the lab at all, Hugh, or are you out locked at home?

Hugh: The MIT Labs are closed, so we've tried to convert our houses and our apartments into laboratories, which is indeed an interesting process.

Erik: So what's that like for you? Because you're doing important work and then it gets interrupted by this virus and things are totally disrupted. I mean it must have rocked your world.

Hugh: Like all of us, I think the ground shifted beneath our feet and I think many us, when that happens, we become somewhat disoriented and lethargic. And that certainly was the case for me. I think for three weeks or so I was about 10% of myself creatively and in terms of my ambition. But now I'm getting used to this new way of being and engaging once again in a creative sense. I think a lot of us have experienced the emotion of, with all the tragedy and the suffering and the human death. Previously what we thought was important and what we engaged in almost seemed trivial. So that recalibration of what's essential, what's important, how we should be investing our energies now and in the future. I think we've all gone through that analysis in the last month.

Dave: We've had several guests on the podcast already talk about how to use this as an opportunity and to recalibrate. But I think the first part of that process is just acknowledging that this kind of sucks and you shouldn't expect yourself to bounce back immediately.

Hugh: Yeah, I completely concur. There's this message of be super ambitious and continue to work around the clock and just ignore what's happening within our own bodies and minds in our communities. So I invite people to recognize what's happening, to embrace what we're feeling. If you don't feel like working and you're able to not work, don't work. This is a moment we need to comprehend and really embrace what we're feeling as individuals and what our family is going through and what our communities are going through.

Dave: The amazing stuff that you often read little soundbites about, about your work, Hugh Herr, is really rooted in very complicated science. And so can you, just for our listeners who don't know your background and don't know all about how this lab came to be, can you just tell us a little bit about the mission of what you're trying to accomplish there at MIT and the work that you're doing in a broader scope?

Hugh: Yeah, so I'm a professor at MIT. I direct a group of researchers. We call ourselves the biomechatronics group. Our dominant goal within biomechatronics is to attach machines to muscles and nerves, which is called the peripheral nervous system. We want to do it bi-directionally. We not only want to sense what a person wants to do via signals coming down the nerve, but we will also want to reflect sensory information from the machine onto the nervous system. So they have natural sensations from the machine. So in the realm of amputation, we're doing that by not only designing synthetics, but also redesigning tissues so that the synthetics, when integrated with the tissues, allow for a very robust high fidelity level of communication between the nervous system and the mechatronics. So, we have models of feeding back proprioception from the prosthesis, as well as touch or cutaneous like signals from the prosthesis, as well as measuring the intent of the human, how they wish to move and stiffen and walk and run and leap.

Dave: And Hugh, you're a user of your own products, double amputee. Tell us about what you're wearing today and how it works for you.

Hugh: So for the first time in my life, my body is low tech, which is really annoying. I'm wearing the only powered ankle foot bionic limb that exists in the world commercially. Each limb has a muscle tendon-like motor that powers and stiffens the synthetic ankle joint. Each of my legs has three very small computers and 12 sensors. So the actuation sensing and computation allows me to walk normally on level surfaces as well as steps and slopes and whatnot as if I had biological limbs.

Erik: And do you think like, because you said when you lost your legs that you felt like a "cripple", or people were trying to force you into that definition of yourself.

Hugh: Right.

Erik: So technology can totally shape your identity in your whole life, right?

Hugh: Right, absolutely. He live in a time and of course in our past as well, where we just accept disease and disability as part of the human condition. We accept our genetics and that's who we are. It can't be changed. In this century, that invariance will no longer be, will no longer be entrapped or constrained by our genes as much as we have in our past, will no longer be constrained by our innate physiologies and athleticism that we were born with and our cognition and so on and so forth. We'll be able to use technologies to really redefine who we are as individuals. And I think it'll break apart these very narrow views that we have of what a human being is, what beauty is, what intelligence is.

Hugh: We have such narrow views of what an intelligent man is or woman is and what a beautiful man is and what a beautiful woman is. And my hope is that'll just be blown to bits. In this new world, if you want a third arm, you can have a third arm. If you want to think fundamentally in a different way, you can do so. If you want to go to a different planet and run on the surface, you can do so.

Dave: Well Hugh, for the first few weeks of this period, you weren't feeling super productive at 10% and eventually you got to a point where you said it's a good time to take stock of what matters most. And here you are talking big picture about the future of what society is going to look like and painting a pretty compelling vision. So in your time at home, where have you come to terms with the things that matter most to you?

Hugh: I mean, there's immediate concerns, immediate needs of our communities. And of course we need to do everything we can as individuals to help the people that are suffering so dearly physically and their health as well as economically. So, in the immediate terms of some members of my lab are developing technologies to help with the COVID situation. My post-doc Matt Carney, working along with colleagues in the open source community are developing a reusable mask that's N95 in terms of its capability, but it could be reused over and over again. So that design is being finalized and we're talking to major manufacturers to get it mass produced.

Erik: What can the rest of us do? Because I've heard you talk a lot about what it means to be a pioneer. And a lot of people, most people don't have a PhD. So I've heard you talk about the idea of pioneering more as a mindset, and you think while we're hanging out here, we can all figure out how to be a little bit of a pioneer in our own community?

Hugh: Yeah. Just, I think there's so much need out there that just, try to do something. Anything. All the small acts of kindness add up to major force and major movement. We do small things, like we had a small stock of N95 masks that we donated to hospitals. Anything one can do. If you're on a farm, help generate food and deliver it to food banks. Donate money to food banks. There's so many areas that we can contribute. And another hope I have for this COVID situation is that it brings us together as humans. With technology and social media and whatnot, we have this strange lack of intimacy, which is driving a decline of empathy. So I'm hoping with this, we're being forced to stay home and be with our loved ones and to really reconnect and to remember the tremendous gift of human connection.

Erik: Your life as a scientist, as a designer, as an engineer, there's tremendous amounts of failure. I think you told me like most of your life is failure. I've even been to your lab and seen this shelf with all these parts that just led to nowhere. So, how do you shape this idea of failure in most people's lives? You probably have a cool perspective.

Hugh: Yeah. You know, I don't view it as failure. I view it as an exploration. So when we, my group, we imagine something, we design it, we build it, and that process can take months or years. And it's finally has manifested, the idea has manifested as crystallized into the physical world, and you try it and you have these expectations of how it's going to behave. And often as you state, Eric, it doesn't work as one anticipated, but it's often very exciting when what you design and build behaves in a different way than you expect because that knowledge, that experience and that knowledge puts one, one step closer to the goal, to what you're trying to achieve. So I view every time we test and what other people would view as a failure when the test doesn't bear fruit, it's not in even the right vector direction of where we wanted to go, as exciting and as exploration because it expands knowledge and therefore we're that much closer to our desired horizon, our desired dream.

Erik: That's so cool. So you have a vision in mind, but maybe it doesn't work out, but maybe it leads to some ... Has it ever led to some new area where you're like, "Wow, I wasn't planning on that, but now I'm learning something that maybe leads me in a new direction"?

Hugh: Yeah. One analogy is a puzzle. And you get one piece of the puzzle and that's very exciting. And you thought you would get all pieces of the puzzle immediately by a certain timeframe and you don't. You might just have a tiny, tiny piece, but instead of regret and saying, "Oh, I failed," it's exciting because you're one step further, a little bit more.

Erik: Yeah. And then how about faith? How does faith play into your life? I know you don't maybe necessarily have a religious faith, but being a scientist and inventing these creations, there's just got to be this tremendous amount of faith, but that's hard to live with, right? Because you're trying to envision things that don't exist.

Hugh: Yeah. So it's interesting that creativity, sometimes people view creativity as this pure intellect, this unemotional property of human beings. I don't at all. I think one's emotional framework is essential to being a highly creative human being. And it's what you touched upon Eric, that to create something in the world that doesn't yet exist, you have to believe that it can exist. You have to have faith, and you have to have so much faith that, because whenever you're trying to create something new, everyone tells you, everybody and their mother and father tell you it can't be done. So you have to have so much faith that you climb over that mountain of the naysayers, everyone that's telling you it can't be done. You have to believe without seeing. You have to have that faith. And if you don't have that, you can't create anything. If you don't have that emotional philosophical framework, you cannot create anything new in the world.

Dave: Well Hugh, thank you again for joining us. It's been a pleasure speaking with you. Thanks so much for all you've done over the years for No Barriers. We're thrilled to have you on this podcast and to have you as a part of our No Barriers community. If you're listening and something caught your ear and you want to go back and find some details, you can always find our show notes at nobarrierspodcast.com. Eric, another great conversation. What resonated with you today?

Erik: I love Hugh's story. I think it's really applicable for so many of us right now. First of all, we're all struggling a little bit and back to the theme that Paul Stoltz introduced a few weeks ago, there's science but there's art to it as well in terms of how do you take the struggle, and as Hugh said, use it as exploration. It's not like where we're just on pause right now. We're trying to maybe use this as a new way of exploring the world in a way that we would have never maybe had the chance to do. And what comes from that is that that's not failure. That's adventure, that's exploration. And I think that's a great mindset to have right now. And I also think the other thing that he said that was cool to me is this idea that like, hey, we're only at 10% of our productivity at first, because we're checking out a little bit. We're overwhelmed. But eventually that ends and you get up to that face that looks so daunting and you climb it, and that's what Hugh did.

Erik: I mean, in the '80s, he climbed the hardest rock face ever climbed. And that was because he got up to the face and he looked at it and he saw the weakness. It's by getting up close up to this thing, by turning into it that you explore and discover and figure out the way forward. Not by necessarily just checking out.

Dave: Well said. Well said. Well, another great conversation. Thank you so much for your time and for listening. Please share this podcast with others and as always, remember what's within you is stronger than what's in your way.

Dave: The production team behind this podcast includes senior producer Pauline [Schaffer 00:00:19:01], executive producer Diedrich [Jonq 00:19:04], sound design, editing, and mixing by Tyler [Cottman 00:19:07], graphics by Sam Davis and marketing support by Megan Lee and Carly [Sandsmark 00:19:12]. Special thanks to the Dan Ryan Band for our intro song, Guidance. And thanks to all of you for listening. We know that you've got a lot of choices about how you can spend your time and we appreciate you spending it with us. If you enjoy this podcast, we encourage you to subscribe to it, share it, and give us a review. Show notes can be found at nobarrierspodcast.com.

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