Related topics

Cyborg MIT prof touts iPhone-controlled power-jumping legs

Other bionic plugins offer 7' height, climbing claws

A cyborg MIT professor has developed and tested innovative lithium-ion powered prosthetic feet which can thrust a wearer off the ground just as normal biological ones can - or be adjusted (using an iPhone app, of course) for greater power, perhaps allowing remarkable leaping and running performance.

Professor Hugh Herr is professor of "biomechatronics" at MIT, and has developed a whole range of different cybernetic feet - having lost both his own, and some of his lower legs, to frostbite during a climbing expedition in 1982.

"The fact that I'm missing lower limbs is an opportunity," he told Forbes magazine this week. "There are no disabled people, only disabled technology."

Herr's range of different plug-in feet offer a range of different abilities. There are extended ones which increase his height to more than 7 feet, clawed ones for climbing up icy cliffs, or carbon-fibre springs for running.

The pièce de résistance of Herr's foot locker, however, is the PowerFoot. Rather than merely being rigid or sprung like other cyberfeet, this features a li-ion powered actuator which pushes the user off from a step just as a living foot does with a normal stride. The foot also senses what's going on and makes other automatic adjustments, for instance pointing down when the wearer is going down stairs and flopping unpowered when the user sits and crosses it over the other leg.

PowerFoot prototype models can be adjusted for greater spring-heeledness using Bluetooth from a phone: the professor promises an iPhone app for this purpose in the near future.

According to Herr, the soon-to-be-released PowerFoot One is actually superior to a living human foot. Testers have told him that the limit on their performance is now tiredness in their intact leg, rather than in the cybernetic one.

There's no doubt that Herr feels that cyber body parts are actually superior in many cases to standard-issue ones.

"Disabled people today are the test pilots for technology that will someday be pervasive," he says. "Eliminating disability and blurring man and machine will be one of the great stories of this century."

The prof believes that one day there will have to be special disability-protection laws, not for the disabled as we know them today, but instead for people who refuse to get with the programme and have cybernetic enhancements like normal folk.

Herr also seems to imply that top-rank athletes may in future willingly modify themselves in order to compete against the world's record-holders in the Paralympics - while the ordinary fleshy Olympics, with their policy of forbidding any bodily enhancement deemed to boost performance, will dwindle into a sports backwater.

"When amputees participate in sports, they call it courageous," he says testily. "Once you become competitive, they call it cheating."

This kind of thing is, of course, the way the Doctor Who Cybermen got started.

The Forbes article will appear in print next month, or you can read it online now. ®

Sponsored: Today’s most dangerous security threats