News & Views

Interview / The merging of man and machine

by Emily Hare

Hugh Herr heads up the biomechatronics lab at MIT Media Lab. His work covers the enhancement of human physical capability through bionic technology. Contagious caught up with the scientist and prodigious rock climber, after he spoke at Digitas LBi's New Front event in London, to discuss what human augmentation means for society and why he sees an end to disability in this century 

Contagious: Are we getting to the point where the boundaries between man and machine are eroding? And if so, is that something we should be celebrating? 

Every new technology has appropriate uses or inappropriate and unintended uses. To restate what I say frequently, the dominant positive of bionics will be to end so much human suffering in the world caused by disability.

At the nefarious end of the spectrum, it doesn’t take much imagination to consider all types of Brave New World scenarios, like parents designing their future children or governments being able to directly manipulate and control citizens. So there are dangers, but what we need to do, in my view, is to not impede but in fact incentivise further innovation in bionics. But also, in parallel, have a very robust conversation about the potential unintended uses of such technology.

I believe and I’m hopeful that we as a society can end disability in this century, while simultaneously demanding the principals that we hold dear, like human diversity and individual freedoms. If we do that, we have an opportunity to expand human diversity, not shrink it. We can expand human freedoms and expression, while simultaneously mitigating pain and suffering. 

As biomechatronics becomes more commonplace, do you think there will be a more fundamental debate around what it means to be human?

I do. If you have a human and none of that person’s limbs are made of biological material, are they still a human? I think most people would say yes. But if you go beyond that and start replacing parts of the brain, I think most people would say perhaps it’s a new organism.

So, how far should we go? And how should we think about our very existence and our place in this universe? It will be discussed robustly throughout this century.

Do you have a sense of how that discussion will play out?

My hope is that, as a society, we’re not too fearful that we naively attempt to mitigate augmentation technology, because there is this glorious benefit of such an extraordinary reduction in human suffering.

Beyond that, augmentation is potentially a beautiful thing in the way that it expands human expression. So we need to do that, but we need to do everything that we can to limit or reduce the chances of nefarious usage of the technology. Every technological revolution undergoes such dynamics. Bionics will be no different.

At the Digitas LBi event, you spoke about how bionic technology can enhance the human experience mentally, as well as physically. Can you tell me more about that?

Bionics is going to make very old, interesting, compelling ideas, actually achievable. Ideas such as virtual reality and telepresence, where you can embody a robot that’s in Europe and you’re in the United States, and you can walk through the streets of Paris and feel the cobblestones beneath your feet. 

In today’s world 

 if you extend the network to its ultimate limit 

 every human being on the planet can share their information with the world and can receive the world’s information. The future network will not only be information flow, it will be robotic, bionic, where you can be anywhere on the planet and give the world your work, your physical expression, not only your information. And you can also receive the work of the world wherever you are. In that world, it may not matter where you’re born, so there are potentially very interesting economic and social consequences.

But there are cost implications involved, so it could be that only the richer parts of the world continue to take advantage of these new technologies.

I think what’s happening, regarding costs specifically, is that the notion of geographically distributed fabrication, where every region in the world has sophisticated fab tools and knows how to use them, is really an equaliser. When local communities can build their own medical devices, their own transportation devices, their own farm equipment, then you can have a more level playing field economically.

Cyborg anthropologist Amber Case has said that we’re all technically cyborgs. Do you agree?

I wouldn’t use the world cyborg, but I agree that human augmentation is commonplace in today’s world. We’re just so used to it, we don’t feel it as augmentation. I just flew here today from Boston. That’s extraordinary.  We have memory augmentation, communication augmentation, physical augmentation, all around us. It’s just going to get more and more acute, more and more pronounced, and more and more intimate. Right now we distinguish the built, designed world from our innate biology. In this century, that separation is going to collapse.

So in the future, when a person loses a limb, for example, we will be able to just completely rebuild that limb and have it work as well or perhaps even better than the innate biological limb. In that world it will not matter what the limb is made of.

My hope is that in this bionics age, we have the potential to increase human diversity. In today’s world, what a beautiful woman is and what a beautiful man is are very, very narrow. In the future world, my hope is that these definitions will expand, and all kinds of bodies and all kinds of cognitive processes are ok and beautiful and wonderful and fully embraced by society.  

Do you see us getting to a point where people want to be physically upgraded?

I do and it sounds grotesque and awful, but I pose the following scenario to people: Imagine a world where bionics is very advanced and we can just replace a limb, and it has at least the functionality of an eighteen-year-old biological limb. In that world, as you become 50 and 60 and 70 and you wake up with aches and pains and your limbs don’t work as well as they used to, why in the world would you ever keep your biological limbs? You wouldn’t.

One reason why people are frightened by this emergence or blending of the new world with our very nature, our very bodies, is that the robots or devices that engineers develop today don’t reflect our nature. But that’s a consequence of poor design, it’s not a fact. We can embed our very nature, things that we hold dear about humanity, into our built world, and make our synthetics, our very tissues and cells beautiful and expressive and have those constructs enhance humanity. In that world, no one would put forth a thing called the television. The television degrades who we are, it tends to make us sedentary, it tends to make us stop thinking, stop expressing. So in this future design world, we won’t see something as hideous as the television.

I love that way of thinking, that these changes that are fundamental to us can also affect how we operate as a society.

Our design world, our stuff, our devices is a crystallization of our imagination. It is us. It is our beauty and our limitations. And as our limitations get conquered what we construct will be more and more expressive and beautiful and seamless with our very human nature.

In terms of the far-reaching areas of your field, if we get to a stage this century where disability isn’t a factor any more, what do you see happening next in terms of human augmentation and society?

If we go that far out, a very important question is what will energy be in the future? Will we solve energy, will we come up with energy sources that are renewable and clean and extremely abundant? If the answer is yes, long term, there will be fewer and fewer people required to run society. In that world, with abundant clean energy, there’s no need for money, there’s no need to train young people to be good worker bees. Society would train young people to express athletically, to express artistically, to express scientifically. And the super heroes would not be economic super heroes, like Bill Gates, they would be great intellects, incredibly creative artists and scientists. Sitting here today, it’s difficult to imagine such a future, but it’s possible.

Hugh Herr is head of biomechatronics at MIT Media Lab