Human Augmentation

author: John Hockenberry
author: Hugh Herr, MIT Media Lab, School of Architecture + Planning, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
published: Oct. 10, 2011,   recorded: April 2008,   views: 3506

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These two MIT Museum speakers hope you’ll walk away from their talk with a good case of augmentation envy – or at least a healthy respect for what technology can do for the human body and soul.

John Hockenberry has used a wheelchair for 30 years, since a car accident left him a paraplegic. He tells us the public has viewed spinal cord injuries like his as “something horrific,” or “staggeringly poignant.” But in the last 10 years, disability has moved from being “an extraordinarily fringe activity” to a central issue facing society, that of “marrying technology with humanity in a way that is organic to the body, appropriate to the spirit and sustainable to the community.” Hockenberry believes that the needs and demands of disabled people are helping push science toward creating a set of design principles “that will allow this issue of human restoration and augmentation to merge into a kind of seamless unity.”

In illustration of this claim, Hugh Herr describes the astonishing strides engineers are making in the development of “Human 2.0.” He starts with himself -- a victim of frostbite during a 1982 mountain climbing accident. After losing both feet below the knee, Herr headed for the machine shop, and realized he didn’t have to accept the version of his body provided by nature. So he cobbled together a pair of prostheses perfect for climbing (which made him over 7 feet tall), followed by other foot-ankle replacements made lightweight and responsive through carbon composite materials and computers. These designs are better than his originals, suggests Herr. “What’s fun about having part of your body artificial is that you can upgrade. It’s depressing to me, too bad that you folks have biological limbs.”

Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have fueled the work in Herr’s lab. He’s now building robotic versions of arms and legs that restore capability, using computers and powered systems with sensors and motors. Stroke victims can use similar models, wrapped around an impaired limb, to restore symmetry between their left and right sides. The big prize will be a neural interface, a way of growing and reactivating an amputated nerve, so that it begins to convey sensory information through the complex networks of the brain. “The dream here is that one day I and other people with limb amputations will not only be able to walk across a sandy beach but feel the sand against their prosthesis,” says Herr.

Researchers haven’t imposed limits on their attempts at augmentation – or improvement. An MIT lab has designed a “socio-emotional prosthesis,” Herr tells us – using deep brain stimulators that leave subjects feeling “happy, calm, content.” Hockenberry wonders in conclusion whether we are “blowing away the notion of normal entirely and creating a completely improvisational notion of what it means to be human.” Herr proposes that in the future, “when we have many, many types of intimate technologies that are inside and attached to our bodies, it will unleash a renaissance in expression.”

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