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The Double Amputee Who Designs Better Limbs

Nearly 30 years ago, Hugh Herr lost both of his legs in a climbing accident at age 17. Today, he runs the Biomechatronics group at the MIT Media Lab and designs better prosthetic limbs for other amputees.




Related Topic

Other segments from the episode on August 10, 2011

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 10, 2011: Interview with Hugh Herr; Review of the film "The Help."


Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
The Double-Amputee Who Designs Better Limbs


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Hugh Herr, sometimes jokes that he feels sorry for people who have
both legs because those legs can't be upgraded like his can. Herr had both legs
amputated below the knee after getting frostbite during an unexpected snowstorm
while mountain-climbing. That was back in 1982, when he was 17.

Now he walks on robotic, prosthetic legs. As we'll hear, they do things that
his intact legs never could have done. He expects that their capabilities will
keep improving, and he can say that with authority since he helped design them.

Herr has worked at MIT's Leg Lab and Media Lab and now directs MIT's
Biomechatronics Research Group. He's the holder or co-holder of 14 patents
related to assistive devices, including a computer-controlled artificial knee.

One aspect of prosthetics he's focusing on is how amputees can control the
movements of their robotic limbs by signals from their nerves or brains. Herr
is one of the people profiled in the new book about innovative technologies
developed in MIT's Media Lab. The book, "The Sorcerers and Their Apprentices,"
is by former Media Lab director Frank Moss.

Hugh Herr, welcome to FRESH AIR. Would you describe the artificial legs that
you designed that you're wearing today?

Mr. HUGH HERR (Director, Biomechatronics Group, Massachusetts Institute of
Technology): The legs that I'm wearing today, they're called PowerFoot BiOMs.
And they're an ankle-foot prosthesis. So my legs are amputated below the knee,
about six inches. So from there down to the floor, I'm artificial. I'm
titanium, carbon, silicon, a bunch of nuts and bolts.

My limbs that I wear have five computers, 12 sensors and muscle-like actuator
systems that enable me to move throughout my day.

GROSS: How do you activate the computers? Like if I want to move my foot, I
just think move the foot, and it moves. How do you get your foot to move?

Mr. HERR: Well, in the future, I'll have neural implants within my biological
body. But for now, the artificial limb itself has its own intelligence. So when
I push on it, and when I change its positions, it responds in a natural way.

So when I want to walk faster, I simply walk faster, and it - the artificial
limb outputs the right torques and energies.

GROSS: Did you design the computer part, or did you have computer specialists
come in for that?

Mr. HERR: My laboratory at MIT, what we first do is we model how the human body
works in standing, walking and running, what the muscles are doing, what the
tendons are doing, how the muscles are controlled with spinal reflexes.

And those - that biological science motivates what we build. So we end up with
putting forth novel architectures of how motors interact with springs, interact
with sensors, interact with onboard microprocessors. So we do most of the
design work of the artificial limb.

GROSS: So you described the limbs that you're wearing today. Do you have other
artificial lower legs at home that you wear for other occasions?

Mr. HERR: Yeah, absolutely. I have - let's see. I have a running pair. I have a
bionic walking pair, limbs that are waterproof. I have various limbs for
climbing mountains. Some are - just sense steep ice walls, spiked feet that
penetrate ice walls, other feet that wedge into small rock fissures, others
that stand on small rock edges the width of a coin. So, probably about eight
pair or so.

GROSS: Wow, I think it's amazing that you can still do all those things that
you mentioned - climbing mountains, climbing ice - with your artificial legs.
Are there things your legs, your artificial legs can do that your real legs
couldn't have?

Mr. HERR: Oh absolutely. My legs were amputated in 1982. And I quickly realized
that from the knees down, I was a blank palette for which to create. I could
create any type of limb that would afford me various physical capabilities.

So I quickly realized that, well, if I want to climb a mountain, I could make
my artificial limbs very, very lightweight, lighter than human flesh. So I made
- I used carbon composites with a density much lower than flesh and bone. But I
had the same strength in my upper body. So I could do more pull-ups before

When I climb a steep ice wall, I no longer have calf fatigue. When I'm on my
front points, it feels like I'm standing on a sidewalk. It's fantastic.

GROSS: You know, I like this idea that your prosthetic legs can keep getting
better and better and designed for all kind of specialty needs while our real
limbs get more worn out with age.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So yours can improve, when real ones tend not to after a certain age.

Mr. HERR: Yeah, it's interesting because my biological body will degrade in
time due to normal, age-related degeneration. But the artificial part of my
body improves in time because I can upgrade. I can get the best computer, the
best motor system, the best artificial intelligence.

So I predict that when I'm 80 years old, I'll be able to walk with less energy
than is required of a person that has biological legs. I'll be more stable.
I'll probably be able to run faster than a person with biological limbs

So it's quite interesting that in fact my artificial part of my body is in some
sense immortal.

GROSS: Yeah, yeah, that's kind of amazing. Now are you wearing shoes over your
artificial feet?

Mr. HERR: I'm now wearing my bionic walking limbs, and yes, I do have shoes on.
But when I climb mountains, I do not use shoes. Sticky climbing rubber is
attached right to the prosthetic foot. I need not use a mountain boot.

GROSS: And why are you wearing shoes now? Is that for - so that people don't
stare at you, or...?

Mr. HERR: Just to try to attempt to fit into society.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Right. Do you ever, like, wear shorts and just, like, let the
prosthetics show?

Mr. HERR: Oh absolutely. It's a lot of fun. So in terms of industrial design,
the approach that my team takes is as follows. We want the bionic limb to have
a human-like shape, but we don't want the bionic limb to look human. We want it
to look like a beautiful machine, to express machine beauty as opposed to human

And the reason is we want the user one evening to, you know, pull a black sock
over their bionic limb and have their limb appear to be fully biological and
then the very next evening, go to a fancy party where they pull that sock off,
and they expose the fact that part of their body is bionic.

So that interplay between human and machine beauty is something we accelerate
and allow.

GROSS: So in talking about machine beauty, how would you aesthetically describe
the beauty of your artificial legs?

Mr. HERR: Well, we all know of machine beauty. We have beautiful cars. Some
people find the Mercedes a beautiful machine. It's certainly not a human
beauty; it's a machine beauty.

Many of us find the iPod, Apple products, that are so well-designed beautiful,
again not a human beauty but a machine beauty. So what we want is we don't want
the user of these prosthetic limbs to be ashamed of their body, ashamed of the
fact that part of their body is artificial. We want them to celebrate it.

So to do that, we need to put forth synthetic structures that are elegant.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Hugh Herr. He's the director of
the Biomechatronics Research Group at MIT, and this is a group that's designing
bionic limbs. And he uses his own designs. He was amputated from a few inches
below the knee down, after a mountain-climbing accident in 1982, when he was
still in his teens.

He's also one of the people profiled in the new book "The Sorcerers and their
Apprentices," about the MIT Media Lab by former director of the lab Frank Moss.
Let's take a short break here. Then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Hugh Herr. He's the director of
the Biomechatronics Research Group at the MIT Media Lab. And he's helped design
the artificial limbs that he's wearing as a result of a mountain-climbing
accident. He lost his legs. They were amputated from the knees down.

You started needing artificial limbs when - was it when you were 17 that you
had your accident?

Mr. HERR: Yes, the tender age of 17, that's correct.

GROSS: So tell us what happened.

Mr. HERR: My climbing partner at the time, Jeff Batsor(ph), we traveled to New
Hampshire to climb Mount Washington. It was January. We headed up towards
what's called the Huntington's Ravine, and we climbed about a 700-foot ice face
called Odell's Gully.

When we got to the top of the face, we decided to continue towards the summit
of the mountain, and the weather conditions became more and more severe. The
snow was blinding. The wind speeds were very, very high. We could barely stand.

So even though we ventured just a few minutes above the top of the face, we
were not able to make it back. We were not able to retrace our tracks and
return to the same gully system.

We'd mistakenly descended down what's called the Great Gulf Region of Mount
Washington, and it's the wilderness side of Mount Washington. And it was there
that we spent several days trying to stay alive, digging snow caves, hugging
each other to stay warm.

Through that process, we made to within just a few miles of a roadway of
civilization, but at that point, we were no longer able to walk. We'd suffered
some severe frostbite and hypothermia, and because of the frostbite, we could
only walk a few paces before losing our balance and toppling over.

Fortunately, a person was out snow-shoeing for the day, discovered human
footprints, our footprints, followed them to our snow cave, and we were rescued
from the mountain via helicopter.

GROSS: Did you think you would survive before you were rescued?

Mr. HERR: No, I didn't believe that we would make it even one day, and we made
it nearly four days. The conditions were severe. It was minus-20-degrees
Fahrenheit, snowing continuously. The average depth of snow was to the waist.
Sometimes the snow came up to our chest. We could barely move.

So I thought we would freeze to death the first night, but it turns out by
hugging one another, by sharing body heat, we were able to survive for quite a
long time. But near the end, when we were both not able to walk even three
paces before toppling over, that's when we both gave up hope, and we actually
stopped hugging each other. And our strategy was the sooner we die, the better.
We were in excruciating pain.

GROSS: So when you were rescued, and you found out that you would live, but
then you found out that your legs were going to be amputated, what went through
your mind in terms of that mix of the positive side, knowing that you'd live,
and the negative side of knowing that you would never physically be the same

Mr. HERR: Well, our physical condition, to me, was the least of my concern. We
were plucked from the mountain, and we were told immediately that a rescuer had
died, a volunteer rescuer, Albert Dow(ph).

GROSS: Rescuing you?

Mr. HERR: Yeah, he was - he and a partner were in Huntington's Ravine, and
while descending, they were hit by an avalanche. And Albert perished. So the
news of that was horrible, horrible. You know, I really, at that time I really
didn't care what was happening with my physical body. I was just devastated
that a fellow climber had perished.

GROSS: I can have some sense of how devastating that must have been. When you
did find out - when did you find out that you would be losing your legs? Did
you know that before the surgery, or did you wake up and find that they were

Mr. HERR: My medical team spent several months trying to save my biological
limbs. There were periods where I would have two surgeries a week, where they
would go in, and they'd try to clean the tissues, to restore circulation to my
lower legs.

But those efforts did not work, and on mid-March of 1982, both of my legs were
amputated. I was aware going into surgery that I would come out of the surgery
without feet. When I awoke from the surgery, and I looked at my legs, I was
shocked at how high the amputation was, how short my legs had become as a
result of the amputation. So that was very traumatic for me.

GROSS: The amputation eventually changed your life around because you found
your calling, which is designing artificial limbs. But before finding your
calling, did you go through a period of abject depression?

Mr. HERR: Yeah, after the - immediately after the accident, I was very, very
angry with myself of putting myself and my partner in that situation, as well
as other climbers, and someone ended up getting hurt. Someone ended up dying.

So I wasn't really depressed. It was a severe, intense anger, and out of that
anger came this extraordinary swelling of energy and a desire to not wallow in
self-pity but to do something worthwhile with my life.

I viewed at the time that to give up, to wallow in self-pity, would have been a
disgrace to the memory of Albert Dow, the rescuer who had died.

GROSS: Would you describe the first prosthetic legs that you were given, what
they were capable of doing and what it physically felt like to wear them?

Mr. HERR: After my legs were amputated, I was home in a wheelchair for a month,
and then I was sent to a rehabilitation center. And at that center, I was
fitted with my first prostheses. The prostheses were made of plaster of Paris,
and they actually told me to not walk without canes because the added force of
walking without canes may actually fracture the plaster.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HERR: So the devices were very, very crude, and I remember distinctly, I
was in a wheelchair, they put these artificial limbs on me made of plaster, and
I pressed up on parallel bars with arms fully extended, and then I slowly put
weight on my legs, and I never felt such excruciating pain in my life. I think
I stood there for a second and immediately sat down again.

GROSS: And was that because the amputation was recent, or is that because of
the nature of the prosthetics?

Mr. HERR: More the former than the latter. When you - when a limb is first
amputated, as you can imagine, it's very swollen, it's very, very sore, the
residual limb. And then to actually stand requires that very high forces and
pressures are exerted on the residual limb, and that's often done very early,
before the residual limb has fully healed. So you can imagine how painful that

But after a while, after six months, after 12 months, the residual limb takes
on a uniform volume, a uniform shape. It doesn't atrophy in time. Then if the
prosthesis is fit well, it can actually be reasonably comfortable.

GROSS: Did you get to the reasonably comfortable point?

Mr. HERR: Yeah, it took about a year. It's very interesting, as an amputee, the
more experienced one is as an amputee the better it gets, the more comfortable
the prosthesis becomes because that residual limb is that constant shape, and
the skin becomes conditioned.

GROSS: At what point did you think about designing a better version of the
prosthetic leg?

Mr. HERR: The prostheses that were provided to me were designed for the
horizontal world and for walking very, very slowly on a horizontal surface.
They were not designed for fast walking, for running. They were not designed
for the vertical world of rock and ice climbing.

After the accident, I dreamed of returning to my chosen sport of mountain
climbing. So it immediately became apparent to me that what I needed to do was
design my own artificial limbs. So I had training in machining and carving
metals and woods and making artifacts. So I went into the shop, and I started
grinding and cutting and designing various limbs, designing various foot
structures that were conducive to the vertical world of rock and ice climbing.

GROSS: What was the first prosthetic like that you designed?

Mr. HERR: Well, very early, initially I put a rock-climbing boot over the
prosthetic foot. And then I said that's silly, and I threw out the shoe.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HERR: And then I realized, well, the foot need not look like a human foot.
So, you know, to climb a vertical rock face, I really don't need a heel. so I
cut off the heel, prosthetic heel. It was just extra weight that I didn't need.
And I started then optimizing how - the angle of the foot relative to the calf
of the prosthesis, the size of the foot. My rock climbing feet are the size of
baby feet. They're very, very small, very, very short so I can get the center
of my body over my feet on a vertical wall.

So through all this tinkering, I was actually able to climb at a more advanced
level after my accident, with artificial limbs, than I had ever achieved before
my accident with normal biological limbs.

GROSS: Hugh Herr will be back in the second half of the show. He heads the
Biomechatronics Research Group at MIT's Media Lab. He wears and designs
prosthetic legs. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

We're talking about wearing and designing state-of-the-art prosthetic legs. My
guest, Hugh Herr, does both. His legs below the knees were amputated after
getting frostbite in 1982 when he barely survived a snowstorm while mountain
climbing. He heads the Biomechatronics Research Group at the MIT's Media Lab.
He is the holder or co-holder of 14 patents related to assistive devices,
including a computer controlled artificial knee. He's one of the people
profiled in the new book about the MIT Media Lab, "The Sorcerers and Their

When we left off, we were talking about his early attempts to design prostheses
that were better than the ones he was given. Those were designed for walking
slowly. He wanted legs designed for running and for climbing in what he
describes as the vertical world.

This might be a silly question but if you're in the vertical world and you're
climbing a mountain that's putting a lot of pressure, isn't it, on the join
between the prosthetic limb and what's left of your leg. I mean what prevents
you from falling off of your own prosthetics?

Mr. HERR: Falling out of my own legs?

GROSS: Yeah. Mm-hmm.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HERR: Not...

GROSS: Is that a stupid question?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HERR: Not very much. So what was absolutely terrifying was the threat of my
prosthetic foot being wedged so tightly in a rock fissure that I would not be
able to get it out. And then, about a minute later, my arms would fatigue and
then I'd, you know, fall and eventually my stuck prosthetic foot would catch
me. And since the connection between the artificial limb and my body isn't that
secure, I would simply fall out of my own legs.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HERR: So then I'd be at the bottom of the mountain after falling, and I'd
look up and there'd be an artificial stuck in the crack hundreds of feet up

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HERR: There's a funny story. One time I fell and the ropes eventually
caught me. But right after the rope caught me I slammed into the rock face and
it was with such a force that one of my prosthetic feet broke in half.

GROSS: Oh, god.

Mr. HERR: And it tumbled down the mountain. And at that early point, I was
still wearing rock climbing boots. And we yelled down to a tourist at the base
of this rock wall as they walked by in their hike to please find boot and put
it next to our backpacks at the base of the wall. So this tourist went over and
they grabbed the boot and they said, there's something in it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So if that accident happened and it was to your real leg what would've

Mr. HERR: Probably my tibia would have just been shattered into many, many

GROSS: So in a way you survived...

Mr. HERR: Yeah. There's so many benefits.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...better with the artificial limb than you would have with the real

Mr. HERR: Absolutely. Oh gosh. Gosh, absolutely.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

Mr. HERR: I can walk through high grass and not have any fear of snakes. I
would love for his snake to try to bite me. Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HERR: A mighty surprise.

GROSS: So one of the things you could do with your artificial legs is change
their height. So tell us some of the ways that comes in handy for you and why
you would choose one height over another.

Mr. HERR: My brothers are about – they're five foot about 10 inches. And with
my artificial limbs I'm about six-two, six-three.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HERR: So just, you know, in day-to-day life I've augmented my height.

GROSS: Why did you want to be taller?

Mr. HERR: It's fun to be tall. There's...

GROSS: I wouldn't know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HERR: There's social advantage to being higher in stature.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HERR: In climbing, sometimes the hand and footholds are very, very far
apart and it's advantageous to be tall. Sometimes the handholds are very close
together and it's actually better to be shorter. So when I climb I look up into
rock face and I kind of decide, depending on how the face looks, what height I
should be and what foot I should use and whatnot.

GROSS: So you can adjust the height as you're wearing the prosthetics.

Mr. HERR: Yeah. It's just a simple turn of an Allen key and I can be as short
as five feet and as tall as I'd like.

GROSS: Wow. And have you used this to trick friends?

Mr. HERR: Yeah. My first several weeks in undergraduate school I decided to
conduct the following experiment; every day I went to school I increased my
height by one inch. So I wanted to see how long would it take for someone to
notice that I was increasing in stature. And I think I got up to nearly eight
feet tall and I had to touch the ceiling practically to remain balanced. And
someone finally said you seem to be getting taller. And I said, of course,
college is a growing experience.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HERR: One can have so much fun with artificial limbs.

GROSS: What have you done to try to make the limbs as comfortable as possible?
We've talked a lot about function. But just in terms of like comfort in the
join between the flesh and the metal.

Mr. HERR: Well, my first patent was issued while I was in undergraduate school,
and the patent described a way of connecting the artificial limb to the human
body, mechanically. It described using fluid bladders that surround the
residual limb, and that are sandwiched between the outer part of the artificial
limb and the human body. And the user vary the pressures within these bladders
and whatnot. So that was kind of my first design project. Today at MIT, I have
an entire team working on novel ways of connecting artificial limbs to the
human body, where there's - where the material using an onboard power supply,
the material will stiffen or it will become soft depending on whether the
person's sitting or standing or running.

So if you're - when a person sits, the interface will become soft and loose
with very little pressures. But if the person suddenly gets up and starts
running it will stiffen.

GROSS: One has to be so smart to be able to do that.

Mr. HERR: Yeah. Many, many sensors and small microprocessor across the
interface. So yeah, there's a lot of intelligence on the interface.

GROSS: Do these legs cost a fortune?

Mr. HERR: Yeah. They are currently too expensive to be made widely available
across the entire world. Artificial limbs are generally affordable in places
such as the United States. But a country, for example, like Afghanistan or
Cambodia, there is no way that a person there would be able to afford the
limbs. So that's something we, long-term, that we working in technology and
business need to do a better job. It's - just because I was born in the United
States, into a wealthy country, affords me the best medical devices. And that
shouldn't be. We should have a system set up we could have broad application
and distribution of these types of mechanisms.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Hugh Herr. He's the director of
the Biomechatronics Research Group at the MIT Media Lab. And he's helped design
the artificial limbs that he's wearing as a result of a mountain climbing
accident. In other words he was caught in a blizzard and got frostbite. He lost
his legs. They were amputated from the knees down. And he and his research
group have created these amazing computer-sensored artificial limbs that he
says are actually much more functional that his legs used to be.

Let's take a short break here then we'll talk some more.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Hugh Herr. He's the director of
the Biomechatronics Research Group at the MIT Media Lab, and what he does is
design artificial limbs. He wears artificial limbs from the knees down. Well,
from below the knees, down, as a result of a mountain climbing accident in
which he suffered frostbite. In 1982 – and his legs were amputated from below
the knees down. He is one of the people profiled in the new book "The Sorcerers
and Their Apprentices," which is about the MIT Media Lab and it was written by
the former director of the lab Frank Moss.

You said earlier that one of the things you're hoping to accomplish with your
artificial limbs is to find a way where they can be neurally(ph) connected to
you so that you can't think move and then we'll move. How in the world are you
thinking about going about doing that?

Mr. HERR: Yeah. I predict that as we march into this 21st century the changes
we'll see in prosthetic designs, that the artificial prosthesis will become
more intimate with the biological human body. There will be emergence, if you
will. So there's several forms to that emergence. One is that the prosthesis
will be attached to the body, mechanically, by a titanium shaft that goes right
into the residual bone, where you can't take the artificial limb off. Another
intimate connection will be electrical. The nervous system of the human will be
able to communicate directly with the synthetic nervous system on the
artificial limb, if you will.

GROSS: How? I mean I just can't imagine how that could possibly be done.

Mr. HERR: Well, there's a number of research groups worldwide developing what
are called neural(ph) implants. For most persons with limb amputations, they
would have what is called a peripheral neural(ph) interface, which would
comprise of small electronic packages that are implanted into muscle in the
residual limb to measure the degree to which muscle has been activated
electrically by the spinal cord. And there's also these small electronic
packages attached to nerves.

When a limb is amputated obviously key nerves are transected or amputated. So
in the future, there will be electronic packages that will communicate, in a
bidirectional way, with the amputated nerve. They'll measure motor information,
how the person wishes to move, dissenting commands from the spinal cord, and
they'll also be stimulation ports to stimulate the nerve endings to reflect the
sensory information from the artificial limb onto the human nervous system, to
close the loop between the human and the machine.

One day, amputees will not only be able to walk across sand but they'll be able
to field the sand against their synthetic prosthesis.

GROSS: What you're describing seems so, just totally, far out. But I gave the
fact that you've accomplished what you have so far makes me think well, maybe
it's really possible.

Mr. HERR: Yeah. When you look at prosthetic innovation over history, what
you'll see is spikes in innovation during and after every major war.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. HERR: So World War II, for example, there's a tremendous progress in
prosthetic design. The current conflict that we now find ourselves in - in Iraq
and Afghanistan, we are now seeing tremendous innovation spike. There's several
reasons for that. One is there is a lot of funding, now, from the U.S.
government to fund research in this area of science and technology.

Another reason why it's an interesting time is that over the last several
decades key disciplines have matured that are relevant to prosthetic design -
robotics, tissue engineering, artificial intelligence. And we now find
ourselves in a position that if we cleverly integrate these disciplines we can
put forth truly bionic limbs that fundamentally improve the quality of life of
persons with limb amputations.

GROSS: Well, it's nice to have such hope for the future for people who have
amputations. And I'm also - I'm sure this would also apply to people who don't.
I'm sure eventually this technology will help people who haven't lost limbs...

Mr. HERR: Absolutely.

GROSS: ...but maybe are just like weak or in pain or, you know, need an assist
of some sort. Or elderly people. Like what are you working on now that would
apply in those areas?

Mr. HERR: Yeah. So our conversation has been about prosthetic limbs. But we're
also working here at MIT on exoskeletal robotic structures. And that's a robot
that wraps around a biological limb. And that biological limb could be impaired
or it could be completely normal and healthy. So in the former case, when the
biological limb is impaired due to age-related degeneration or due to stroke or
spinal cord lesion, given a few examples, the robot pushes on the impaired
biological limb in just the right way to allow a person to stand, walk and even

We're also working on exoskeletal structures that argument human capability
beyond what nature intended. So Fancy Pants, these robotic robots that you wear
on your legs that allow you to run with less stress to your biological leg,
allow you to walk and run with less energy, food energy - we predict in the
future that when a person, for example, goes jogging, they'll routinely wear
robots. Why? To protect their joints, their knees' joints and hip joints and
whatnot, from the risk of injury.

And if you - in the future, if you have a knee injury you'll wear robots to
protect your joints from further degradation.

GROSS: You know how a lot of older people use walkers because they're either
too weak to walk without an assist or they have a hip problem or a leg problem?
Can you envision robotic technology that would make that, you know, by
comparison primitive walker obsolete?

Mr. HERR: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. And it could be in a form of, again, an
exoskeletal structure that wraps around the legs of the elderly person. Or it
could be implants. It could be implants into key muscles within the leg that
help the nervous system of the elderly person fire the muscles in the
appropriate way for balance.

GROSS: Why do you still climb? You were in, you know, a horrible blizzard. You
came so close to dying. You lost the bottom of your legs. You lost your feet.
Somebody died trying to rescue you. You felt really guilty and angry at
yourself. And you designed these artificial limbs which in part have enabled
you to keep climbing. Why would you go back to it after such catastrophe?

Mr. HERR: Well, I've been climbing mountains since the age of seven. To me it's
as natural as walking. Climbing is a vertical dance. It requires both physical
power and also grace, graceful movements. So it's always been a part of my
life. It's absolutely exhilarating and wonderful and it's something that I
didn't want to give up. And it was really the first expression of how I could
exploit technology attached to my body in a way that was positive and that
would help others.

GROSS: Did you ever climb that mountain again, the one where you got lost and
got hypothermia and frostbite?

Mr. HERR: I have. Yes. And I have two daughters. They are six and eight years
old, and my daughters have climbed the mountain as well. So it's wonderful to
now see them ascending these glorious mountains that I ascended when I was
young as well.

GROSS: Well, Hugh Herr, I want to thank you so much for talking with us. It's
really been a pleasure. I wish you well and thank you so much.

Mr. HERR: Oh, thank you so much. It's been my pleasure.

GROSS: Hugh Herr heads the Biomechatronics Research Group at MIT's Media Lab
and is one of the people profiled in the new book "The Sorcerers and Their

You can see pictures of him wearing his prosthetic legs on our website
Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
Heavy-Handed 'Help' Saved By Great Acting


The film adaptation of Katheryn Stockett's best-selling novel "The Help" opened
today. It's set in the early '60s at the dawn of the civil rights era. The
story is told from three different points of view: two African-American maids
working for white families in Jackson, Mississippi and a young white woman who
wants to write about them. The film was written and directed by Tate Taylor and
stars Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer as the maids, and Emma stone as the

Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN: Few fictional films wear their political messages as proudly
or loudly as "The Help," which centers on black female domestic servants in
Jackson, Mississippi in the early '60s and a 23-year-old white woman who
induces them to tell their stories for a book to be called, appropriately
enough, "The Help."

Emma Stone plays the perky white woman, Eugenia Phelan, nicknamed Skeeter, who
returns from college to find her wealthy family's maid - who essentially raised
her - gone under mysterious circumstances, and her friends married with kids
and black maids of their own. After Skeeter talks her way into a newspaper job,
ghost-writing a column on housekeeping - a subject about which she knows
nothing - she reaches out for advice to her friend Elizabeth's maid, Aibileen,
played by Viola Davis. But as racial tensions intensify and her snooty friends
reveal their true segregationist selves, Skeeter prevails on Aibileen to give
her more than household cleaning tips.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Help")

Ms. EMMA STONE (Actor): (as Skeeter) There's something else I want to write
about. I would need your help. I want to interview you about what it's like to
work as a maid. I'd like to do a book of interviews about working for white
families, and we could show what it's like to work for, let's say, Elizabeth.

Ms. VIOLA DAVIS (Actor): (as Aibileen) You know what (unintelligible) if she
knew I was telling stories on her.

Ms. STONE: (as Skeeter) Well, I was thinking that we wouldn't have to tell her.
The other maids would have to keep it a secret too.

Ms. DAVIS (Actor): (as Aibileen) Other maids?

Ms. STONE: (as Skeeter) Well, I was hoping to get four or five to show what
it's really like in Jackson.

EDELSTEIN: Getting those other maids turns out to be a problem, until the
insults become even harder to bear. The imperious Hilly Holbrook, played by
Bryce Dallas Howard, announces it's unhygienic to let black people use their
house toilets and directs her friends to build outhouses. Then Hilly dumps her
aging mother's maid, Minny, played by Octavia Spencer, for being what's often
called sassy. Although Medgar Evers has just been murdered and the KKK is on
the prowl, Minny finally agrees to talk to Skeeter too. But not before laying
down the law.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Help")

(Soundbite of door slamming)

Ms. OCTAVIA SPENCER (Actor): (as Minny) All right. I'm going to do it, but I
need to make sure you understand this ain't no game we're playing here.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. SPENCER: (as Minny) Slide your chair up under that table. Face me.

Ms. STONE: (as Skeeter) What?

Ms. SPENCER: (as Minny) I need to see you square on at all times.

(Soundbite of chair squeaking)

Ms. SPENCER: (as Minny) I got to come up with the questions too? Oh.

Ms. STONE: (as Skeeter) Let's begin with where you were born.

Ms. SPENCER: (as Minny) (Unintelligible) Mississippi, on my great auntie's

EDELSTEIN: "The Help" is based on a novel by Kathryn Stockett, both beloved for
opening white eyes to the vantage of maltreated servants and attacked, in some
quarters, as a white author's appropriation of black women's experience. Some
of Stockett's critics have gone so far as to say she actually romanticizes
domestic servitude by depicting black nannies' genuine love for the white
children in their care. They also say the novel is full of stock characters
that reinforce classic African-American stereotypes like the sassy maid and the
shiftless, abusive husband.

My view of this controversy is easily stated: I don't know, I don't know, I
don't know. I concede the novel and movie are heavy-handed. But I also think
they're full of good, evocative details - closely observed depictions of the
coping mechanisms of both servants and employers. The white Southern belle's
passive aggression, condescension, and sheer misuse of power come through

Director Tate Taylor has a dull, square style with too many close-ups - but the
faces we get close to are great ones. Emma Stone is amazingly vivid, at once
blurty and brainy, and villainess Bryce Dallas Howard lifts her nose and slits
her eyes with aplomb. Jessica Chastain plays a handsome rich guy's hot,
uneducated wife who hires Minny on the sly to teach her how to clean and cook.
The character has been simplified. In the novel she's scarily unstable - but
Chastain makes her helplessness hilarious. Allison Janney triumphs over
countless banalities as Skeeter's oblivious mother, and Sissy Spacek has some
funny scenes as Hilly's mom, derisive toward her daughter even in her

Octavia Spencer's Minny is indeed a stereotype, but she charges into the frame
and gives her scenes a lift. The center of "The Help" is Viola Davis, who has
eyes unlike other actresses. They're hard, unyielding, with no giveback,
softening only for the neglected little girl in her care. It's a tough,
beautifully judged performance. The weak, weepy, uplifting ending is odd, given
Mississippi's imminent eruption, but there will be wet hankies everywhere. "The
Help" is the highest form of middlebrow.

GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. You can watch
clips from the film on our website,

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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