Skip to main content
Move the World.

For centuries, the best thing a doctor could do for someone who’d lost a limb was keep them from bleeding to death. This was done by applying a hot iron or boiling tar to the wound (without anaesthesia), up until 1718, when J. L. Petit invented the screw tourniquet (still no anaesthesia). But as medical knowledge grew, so too did our ability to treat amputations. We learned how to stop the bleeding without burning, how to disinfect the site of amputation, and how to anaesthetize patients.

But long after we’d discovered all those things, patients had very few options when it came to choosing substitutes for their original limbs. The prosthetic arm with a hook on the end, common still today, dates back to the 11th century. Prosthetic legs, meanwhile, didn’t change all that much from the renaissance until the early 20th century, when the aviator Marcel Desoutter lost his own leg and had the idea to craft a replacement using lightweight aluminum, rather than steel or wood.

Considering the slow evolution of prosthetics in the first two millennia of the common era, what we’ve seen in just the last 10 years--from both a functionality standpoint and an aesthetic one--is kind of mind-boggling. There’s Johnny’s arm, of course:

But there’s also Hugh Herr’s legs. Herr is the co-director of the Center for Extreme Bionics at MIT. When he was a teenager, he had both of his legs amputated below the knee after being stranded on a mountain and experiencing severe frostbite. The legs he wears now are arguably better than the ones he was born with. Here he is wearing them during a TED talk:

Hughgif1

And here’s a closer look:

Hughgif2

Herr’s legs enable to him to live just as fully as he did when he was biologically intact. Herr hasn’t just restored himself, however. His team also designed a prosthetic leg for Adrianne Haslet-Davis, who lost her left leg in the Boston Marathon Bombing. Here she is dancing publicly for the first time on her new leg:

Hughgif3

Herr’s vision for the future of bionics is technology so advanced that it doesn’t just repair broken bodies--it makes them better than they were before their injuries. “I believe the next step in bionics is to increase the mergence of the built design world with biological tissues, electrically, mechanically, and chemically,” Herr said in a recent Reddit AMA. “The fundamental science and technology that will enable this mergence will not only end many disabilities, but will also serve as the same foundation to enable human augmentation, extending capability beyond innate physiological levels.”

"The fundamental science and technology...will also serve as the same foundation to enable human augmentation, extending capability beyond innate physiological levels.”

The idea that prosthetics can make us better than normal is shared by most cutting edge bionics researchers. In an interview with Freethink, Michael P. McLoughlin of the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins, said that he wants to develop upper limb prostheses so advanced that we’re forced to consider whether these technologies provide an unfair advantage to the people who use them.

If you want to see more of Herr’s projects, you can check them out at BIONX, as well as at MIT’s Biomechatronics Group. And you should definitely watch Herr’s TED Talk, where you can see Haslet-Davis finish that dance:

https://youtu.be/CDsNZJTWw0w

The transformation in the bionics field isn’t just functional. We’re also seeing incredible shifts on the aesthetic front. And no one has broken more ground than industrial designer Scott Summit, whose work unites both form and function in a way that “invites engagement and connects the amputee with the world around.”

“If something feels medical, then we can only think of it as a medical adjunct,” Summit writes at his site. “If it instead complements the human form, taste and style, then it evolves from medical stopgap into something more human. It generates excitement, not pity.”

Summit accomplishes that paradigm shift with designs like these:

Credit: Scott Summit/summitID

“The goal,” Summit writes, “was to rethink the nature of a prosthetic leg, imbuing it with all the personalization of a bespoke fashion product, while recreating body symmetry on the wearer. A 3D scan of the contralateral leg creates symmetric reference geometry, and the wearer is queried for design and material input.”

The results were equally powerful: “Athletes played sports again, since the fairing offered utility in soccer and other sports. Amputees wore shorts or skirts again, since the leg was intended to be seen, not hidden. Amputees interacted more with the people around them, since the leg suddenly invited questions and comments, instead of awkward avoidance.”

Check out Summit’s TED Talk for his full take on making prosthetics equally appealing and functional:

https://youtu.be/fir5HI0Gwrc

And make sure to watch (and share!) our episode about the Applied Physics Lab at Johns Hopkins, and the arm they designed for Johnny Matheny.

Up Next

Transportation
“Touchless Touchscreen” Could Reduce Distracted Driving
Distracted Driving
Transportation
“Touchless Touchscreen” Could Reduce Distracted Driving
New “predictive touch” tech could help prevent distracted driving by limiting the amount of time drivers spend interacting with vehicle displays.

New “predictive touch” tech could help prevent distracted driving by limiting the amount of time drivers spend interacting with vehicle displays.

Genetics
Gene Editing Corrects Deafness-Causing Mutation in Mice
Gene Editing
Genetics
Gene Editing Corrects Deafness-Causing Mutation in Mice
Using a promising new technique for gene editing — base editing — researchers corrected a deafness-causing genetic mutation in mice.

Using a promising new technique for gene editing — base editing — researchers corrected a deafness-causing genetic mutation in mice.

Fertility
How GMO Zebrafish Could Inspire New Infertility Treatments
zebrafish  Infertility Treatments
Fertility
How GMO Zebrafish Could Inspire New Infertility Treatments
By genetically modifying zebrafish, researchers have discovered a sex hormone that could lead to future infertility treatments for humans.

By genetically modifying zebrafish, researchers have discovered a sex hormone that could lead to future infertility treatments for humans.

Future of Travel
Coast-To-Coast in 30 Minutes: Solving the Physics of Hypersonic Flight
hypersonic flight
Future of Travel
Coast-To-Coast in 30 Minutes: Solving the Physics of Hypersonic Flight
Researchers are solving big design challenges of hypersonic flight with a surprisingly small wind tunnel, and it could revolutionize commercial air travel.

Researchers are solving big design challenges of hypersonic flight with a surprisingly small wind tunnel, and it could revolutionize commercial air travel.

Health
Data Scientists Are Making It Easier to Track COVID-19
Track COVID-19
Health
Data Scientists Are Making It Easier to Track COVID-19
Teams of computer scientists across the globe are working tirelessly to help track COVID-19 through the use of computer modeling and data dissemination.

Teams of computer scientists across the globe are working tirelessly to help track COVID-19 through the use of computer modeling and data dissemination.

Below the Surface
The Fleet of Underwater Drones Probing Earth’s Interior
underwater drones
Below the Surface
The Fleet of Underwater Drones Probing Earth’s Interior
The Earth’s interior may be the last wild frontier, but not for long. These underwater drones are scanning the ocean to create a 3D model of its internal dynamics.

The Earth’s interior may be the last wild frontier, but not for long. These underwater drones are scanning the ocean to create a 3D model of its internal dynamics.

Dispatches
How Coffee Could Treat Diabetes
How Coffee Could Treat Diabetes
Dispatches
How Coffee Could Treat Diabetes
Someday, diabetics could use caffeine to trigger insulin production, thanks to specially designed kidney cells.

Someday, diabetics could use caffeine to trigger insulin production, thanks to specially designed kidney cells.

Aflac
The Robot Duck Helping Kids With Cancer
The Robot Duck Helping Kids With Cancer
Watch Now
Aflac
The Robot Duck Helping Kids With Cancer
Nation of Artists and Freethink are proud to partner with Aflac, Sproutel and Carol Cone On Purpose for the launch...
Watch Now

Nation of Artists and Freethink are proud to partner with Aflac, Sproutel and Carol Cone On Purpose for the launch of My Special Aflac Duck, a social robot designed to bring comfort and joy to kids with cancer, and already the winner of the Tech for a Better World Innovation Award at CES 2018, Engadget’s official Best of CES Awards for Best Unexpected Product, and the CES Showstoppers Award for Best Robotics.

Superhuman
Superhuman Trailer
Superhuman Trailer
Watch Now
Superhuman
Superhuman Trailer
Join us as we meet the innovators building our superhuman future.
Watch Now

Superhuman is a Freethink original series about the amazing advances in medical innovation that are making the present look more like a sci-fi depiction of the future. Join us as we meet the engineers, entrepreneurs, doctors and patients who are giving people a new lease on life today, while building our superhuman future of tomorrow.