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Dancing on a Bionic Leg: The Best TED Talk of 2014

Hugo Herr says he wants to end the notion of disability.

James Duncan Davidson/TED

MIT professor Hugh Herr designs bionic limbs. A double amputee after a climbing accident 30 years ago, Herr wears his own technology, and he described what it does in a talk at the TED conference in Vancouver last week.

Herr’s work is a serious step up from prostheses. His bionic parts don’t just dumbly follow the limbs they are attached to; they are mechanical and communicate with the nervous system through electricity. Wearers control the limbs by sending normal movement signals through their body that can be interpreted by the chips on board.

Herr said his bionic limbs are also much more comfortable because they are custom-made using models of an individual’s tissue composition, and their stiffness changes dynamically. About 1,000 people have them so far, and Herr said he is meeting with Medicare and Medicaid to see if they’ll cover bionic limb creation.

The ultimate goal of Herr and his Biomechatronics Group at the MIT Media Lab is to end the notion of disability, he said. And beyond people who have biological impairments, Herr said he imagines a future where everyone wears exoskeletons around their biological limbs to minimize the impact and injury from activities like running.

Then came the TED Talk’s grand finale: Herr brought out Adrianne Haslet-Davis, a dancer who had her leg blown off in the Boston Marathon bombing attack less than a year ago. She gave her first dance performance since, on a bionic leg custom-designed for her not just to run and walk, but also to dance. There were very few dry eyes.

This article originally appeared on

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