Steven Kotler | Bionic Man
Steven Kotler is a bestselling author and award-winning journalist. His last book, Abundance, debuted at #1 on Amazon, and spent 10 weeks on the New York Times bestseller’s list. Steven’s work has been translated into 27 languages and featured in over 60 publications, including The New York Times, Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, Wired and Forbes. He is also the cofounder of the Flow Genome Project, an organization dedicated to decoding ultimate human performance.
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Bionic Man

25 May 2012, Posted by Steven Kotler in

 

The first thing David Rozelle did after the insurgents put a price on his head was up the ante. After all, this was Captain David Rozelle, the one they called Iron Man or Killer 6 or Kowboy 6—the 6 being short for “six-shooter,” as in gunslinger, ass kicker, take your pick. His head for a measly thousand bucks? It was insulting.

This all went down in the summer of 2003 in a police station in the city of Hit (pronounced “Heat”), Iraq. Rozelle and the 139 men under his command, the Army’s Third Armored Cavalry Regiment K Troop, had already battled their way from Kuwait to Syria. They had followed the men of Thunder Run and scrapped beside the marines in Fallujah, and when they were done there, the brass had told Rozelle to secure a town in northwestern Iraq. What town? It didn’t matter. Everything was a bloody mess up there.

Rozelle started looking at maps. Hit caught his eye. There were no CIA data on the place. Aerial reconnaissance photos showed lots of fancy cars—Mercedeses, Rolls-Royces—but no major industry. All the earmarks of a significant Sunni stronghold. “Major bad guys for sure,” is how Rozelle describes it.

So Rozelle and K Troop took Hit. In two months, they restored order. Under Rozelle’s command, the members of K Troop taught themselves counterinsurgency tactics: tracking snipers, putting money back into the banks and restoring the electricity. Rozelle even put a woman on the city council, a fact he likes to brag about: “We were going to be the first town in Iraq to have equal rights for women.”

Then, in the sticky weather of early June, at roughly 6:30 p.m., Rozelle arrived at the new police station—new because insurgents had already burned down the old one in an attempt to scare off the police force Rozelle had built—for his nightly pre-mission briefing. Something was wrong. There was tension in the room, people talking in whispers. Demanding an explanation, Rozelle was told that Sunni insurgents had put a price on his head. He was not surprised. But he was curious—how much was he worth?

“I asked my translator,” says Rozelle. “It was this big moment. The room got quiet. He turned to me and said in a stage whisper, ‘One thousand dollars.’”

Rozelle knew there were spies in that room. He knew whatever he said would get back to the insurgents.

“That’s bullshit!” he shouted. “Tell those sons of bitches I’m worth way more than that. I’m worth $10,000. Tell them I’ll pay the bounty myself.”

No one claimed Rozelle’s bounty that first night. Or the next. No one got close for almost two weeks—but that only exacerbated the situation. The insurgents started burying land mines on frequently traveled roads, including the one just outside the soccer stadium. On June 21 Rozelle was leading a convoy down that road. Unwilling to subject his men to dangers he would not face himself, Rozelle had his Humvee take point. He rode shotgun. As was his custom, he held a pistol out the window in his right hand, his left staying firmly atop the Bible his father had given him before he departed for Iraq.

Up ahead, the road looked disturbed, like something had pushed the dirt around. Rozelle halted the convoy and surveyed the area. He told the driver to proceed slowly. Seconds later all hell arrived. The truck hit a land mine. The explosion shot the front end of the Humvee four feet into the air. Doors and windows blew out, scattering debris more than a hundred yards. Rozelle’s flak jacket saved his life. He took shrapnel to the face and arms. His left foot was pinned between the ground and the engine block. His right foot? His boot was still on, but blood and bone oozed out of the side. When he tried to step on it, he drove his tibia and his fibula straight into the ground. Wow, did that hurt like a motherfucker.

The first surgery took place in a dusty tent outside Baghdad. The setup looked like something out of MASH. Rozelle couldn’t believe anyone would operate under such conditions. Operate they did. Doctors are trained to salvage as much of the limb as possible, so they performed a tricky ankle-joint amputation known technically as a Syme’s.

Amputation is one of the greatest possible shocks. Children cannot help staring at amputees, as psychologists have said, because losing a limb is literally the worst thing a child can imagine. Adults may have better manners, but the internal damage is no less severe. The patient must endure a period of heavy grief, as if the mind cannot tell the difference between a lost limb and death itself. “When I woke up from surgery without my foot,” says Rozelle, “I had no frame of reference. I had never known an amputee before. It was like being completely reborn.”

Not long afterward, Rozelle was loaded onto a transport plane for Ramstein Air Base in Germany. Before departure, his commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Butch Kievenaar, paid a visit. He’d come to deliver a message, telling Rozelle that if he got himself patched up, he could come back to Iraq and be given another command.

Rozelle was pissed. Maybe this was motivational bullshit, something the shrinks dreamed up to keep him from killing himself. But Kievenaar was a straight shooter, so perhaps the offer was good. Either way, at that point, with the bedsheets pressed flat where his foot should have been, all Rozelle could think was, I have given enough.

Twenty-one years before anyone put a price on David Rozelle’s head, during the winter of 1982, Hugh Herr, then 17, and Jeff Batzer, then 20, left their homes in Lancaster, Pennsylvania for an adventure in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Both were experienced rock climbers, Herr already something of a legend. Known as Boy Wonder, he had been the youngest to ascend several North American mountaineering classics, including Mount Temple in the Canadian Rockies, which he scaled at the age of eight.

Herr and Batzer had their sights on Odell’s Gully, an ice-climbing route atop Mount Washington, one of the world’s most dangerous destinations. Since 1849 more than 135 people have died on this mountain and its surrounding peaks. Freezing temperatures, frequent avalanches. The average wind speed is 35 mph, but in 1934 a weather station on its summit clocked 231 mph— the strongest recorded blow in history.

Herr and Batzer knew all this but still decided to leave their extra backpack—containing food, clothes and sleeping bags—at the base of the climb. Herr figured that without the added weight they could make it up and back more quickly, an important consideration, as a big storm was heading their way.

They did make good time, climbing four pitches of ice in less than an hour and a half, reaching the top of Odell’s before 10 a.m. But the top of Odell’s is not the top of Mount Washington. The apex lies some 1,000 feet higher. Not many climbers, at least not in winter, make a summit bid. Herr and Batzer decided to give it a try.

The storm arrived soon after. Temperatures fell far below zero; the wind gusted over 70 mph. Maybe they made it to the summit, maybe they turned back early; in those whiteout conditions it was impossible to tell. What we know is that they never made it back to their planned descent route, instead trekking into the largest ravine in the White Mountains, a vast icy wildlands known as the Great Gulf.

When nightfall came and they hadn’t returned, a search- and-rescue effort was mounted. Over the next three days dozens of people fanned out over Mount Washington. Some went on foot, others by snowmobile. Helicopters canvassed the area. It was a brutal effort. An avalanche caught two members of the North Conway Mountain Rescue Service, Michael Hartrick and Albert Dow. Hartrick walked away from the incident. Dow wasn’t so lucky. The slide swept him into a tree: his back snapped, his chest crushed, his death nearly instantaneous. He was 28 years old.

Herr and Batzer, meanwhile, were still lost in the wilderness.

They spent three long days wandering through the Great Gulf, three longer nights huddled in prayer. The temperatures stayed below freezing. In the beginning, they hugged each other for warmth. Later, when they could no longer stand it, they let go of their embrace, wanting the cold, the frozen relief of a quicker death.

On the fourth day, with a turn of fortune that in other times would have been

called divine providence, a snowshoer found them hidden beneath a boulder, barely alive. They were medevaced to a hospital that specialized in frostbite and hypothermia, then transferred farther afield. But the gangrene was too severe. Two weeks later, Batzer’s doctor amputated his right thumb and four fingers down to the first joint; three days after that they came back and took his left foot and the toes from his right. Herr was in worse shape. Both his feet were black, the skin ragged, his toes fused together. In just over a month’s time, he had seven surgeries. None did much good. His feet could not be saved. For his last surgery, doctors performed a pair of standard below-knee amputations—six inches below the knee, to be exact, long considered the right length for plugging stumps into prosthetics.

Herr woke from surgery screaming—his physical pain otherworldly, his psychological torment even worse. He had been an awkward child, shy, not very good at school; his self-worth, his self-image, his entire being was tied to stone. Herr needed rock climbing like most people need air.

While Herr’s fear of never climbing again was overwhelming, even worse was his remorse over Albert Dow’s death. Mountaineers live by a strict code: Never endanger another’s life. Herr had violated this rule. The guilt was crushing.

The last time an American soldier with injuries as extensive as David Rozelle’s returned to active combat duty was during the Civil War. But the Army was Rozelle’s life.

He was born in Dallas in 1972 and grew up as the child of patriots. His father served with the Air Force, raising him on stories of duty, honor and the importance of American freedom. But as with so many other Americans, it wasn’t just these values that drove Rozelle into the military—it was the need for a paycheck.

Rozelle went to Davidson College in North Carolina on a football scholarship. Unfortunately, he was also working three jobs and barely making ends meet. A good friend, meanwhile, was in ROTC and having no such trouble. So Rozelle went to talk to the recruiter, who sent him to Fort Benning’s Airborne School. “This guy knew his job,” says Rozelle. “Sending a 19-year-old to go jump out of airplanes? Of course I fell in love with the Army.”

After graduation Rozelle went to Fort Knox to train as a tank commander, spent the early years of his career working at Fort Hood and saw his first operational deployment in 1999, in Kuwait. Afterward, it was on to Korea for top-secret war planning and a second life playing semipro rugby. He finally made it back home to a dream job at Fort Carson in Colorado, close to the mountains and the skiing he loved.

On 9/11 that dream ended. Rozelle reported for duty. And then, after more than a decade in the military, he killed his first man. “As a Christian,” he says, “killing went against everything I believed. But this was war and it was either him or me. It was like living a nightmare.”

There would be other nightmares. Morphine is just about the only workable shield against the pain of amputation, but opiate addiction is a frequent side effect. After eight excruciating surgeries, a quarantine at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center and phantom pains as severe as those he experienced when he’d first been blown up, Rozelle kicked a morphine habit cold turkey. Now that was a fucking nightmare.

He replaced the habit with another: physical therapy. Rozelle had deployed for Iraq weighing 220. Now he was down to 175. The mirror was not his friend. He wanted his body back, his life back. His wife was about to give birth to their first child; he needed to set an example. Plus, President Bush had told Rozelle that he could come down to the Crawford ranch for a run whenever he was ready.

Rozelle decided to get ready. Half an hour after being fitted with his first pair of prosthetics, with his stumps still raw, Rozelle was outside: running, jumping, doing push-ups.

Still, reality was settling in. “Ever since my injury, I was waiting for this magic prosthesis that would make me feel healed. I was ready to be healed. But then I got my first leg and realized how wrong I had been. There was no quick fix. The prosthesis sucked. I had lost my foot and was going to be like this forever.”

And herein lies the rub. While prosthetic devices are among mankind’s earliest inventions (they date back to Egypt circa 1069 B.C.E.), progress has been exceedingly slow. “At the time I got hurt,” says Rozelle, “there was no major difference between the prosthetic limb I was using and the ones soldiers got coming back from Vietnam.”

All this, though, was starting to change. “For the first time in history,” says Rozelle, smiling and quoting the opening monologue of The Six Million Dollar Man, “we can rebuild him. We have the technology.”

And the reason we can rebuild him?

There are several. One is the more than 1,400 men and women who have lost limbs in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: a sad parade that reinvigorated our national conscience and sent research dollars flooding back into the field. Additionally, over the past decade, revolutionary breakthroughs in a bevy of whiz-bang technologies— robotics, nanotechnology, tissue engineering, machine-brain interfaces, to name but a few—have begun leaking into the medical arts. Money and technology alone did not close this gap. To understand how this really came together, you need to start some 21 years ago, with a 17-year-old boy named Hugh Herr and his very big debt to pay.

Ten days after surgery, Herr couldn’t wait any longer. He had to know if he could climb. He began sneaking out of his hospital bed, dragging himself over to the window, trying to do pull-ups on the ledge. A letter arrived from President Reagan. “I know you are a young man with a very brave heart,” it read. The president didn’t know the half of it.

Five weeks after surgery, Herr got his first set of legs. Called pylons, they were made of plaster and attached by straps above the knee. The first two times Herr left the hospital, his doctors refused to let him take the pylons along—for fear he would try to climb. The third time, less than 10 weeks after Herr had lost his legs, his brother and frequent climbing partner, Tony, drove him to a Pennsylvania crag called Safe Harbor.

Herr had come to attempt a 60-foot intermediate route that, before the accident, he could have done blindfolded. Maybe he could do so again, but first he had to make it up the long hikers’ trail that led to the bottom of the cliff. Herr stumbled along on his canes. Then his brother carried him piggy-back. When the ground steepened further, Herr got down on all fours and dragged himself up the path.

At the base of the climb, Tony scampered off to set a top rope, leaving Herr alone at the bottom, staring upward. Here, at last, was the stone test he was desperate to pass. He had no idea what would happen next; he only knew that his whole life depended on it.

Herr made his first move. One good hold led to another and then another, and his legs didn’t cause much trouble. He rose higher. Getting to that climb had kicked his ass, but as soon as he made his initial moves, he came to a startling realization: He could climb better than he could walk.

It was the first of a series of startling revelations. Herr still had to finish his senior year of high school. He spent much of that time climbing, much of it working in a machine shop at school—building his own prosthetic legs. Lifelike aesthetics play a role in normal prosthetics, but Herr had a different goal in mind. “I realized that I didn’t need human feet,” he says. “I needed climbing tools. If I could build the right kind of appendage, one customized for a vertical world, I could erase my disability with technology.”

Herr built a huge assortment of vertically customized prosthetics: climbing legs with crampons for feet, short legs for certain routes, longer ones for others. One early masterpiece was a pair of bladed, beveled feet, narrow at the toe, wider at the heel, perfect for fitting into cracks.

With these tools, Herr earned himself a new nickname: Mechanical Boy. It wasn’t long before he was climbing at his previous level. Pretty soon, he was better than before. In August 1983, in conjunction with a trio of other professional climbers, Herr helped establish one of America’s first legitimate 5.13+ climbs—on homemade prosthetic limbs.

In the history of the world, no other disabled athlete had ever performed at this level. Herr’s success on the rock was merely a proof of concept: “It’s where I learned that people aren’t disabled,” he says. “Technology is disabled.” So Herr decided to improve the technology, to devote his life to building better bionic limbs. He had finally figured out a way to pay his debt.

“Climbing taught me to focus,” recounts Herr, “to distill problems down to critical components and stick with them until they were solved. So while I wasn’t the brightest student, I had a good toolbox and could learn hard subjects.”

He excelled at physics at Millersville University in Pennsylvania and displayed genius as an inventor, earning his first patent—for a much more comfortable limb-socket interface built around inflatable bladders—before the end of his senior year. He went on to earn a master’s in mechanical engineering from MIT and a doctorate in biophysics from Harvard. Somewhere in between, he stumbled upon the puzzle that would occupy his next 15 years: human motion.

“Human motion doesn’t seem like it should be a puzzle,” says Herr. “We’ve been studying it for a very long time, but it’s really a black hole. We can’t even give sophisticated answers to simple questions. What does a muscle do? Well, we’re not exactly sure.”

First as a graduate student and later, in his current role as head of the biomechatronics research group at MIT’s Media Lab, Herr decided the best approach was to mimic nature’s designs. He started with “embodied intelligence.” Amputees had been making do with dumb prosthetics, but our natural limbs are incredibly smart. When your leg moves, all your nervous system needs to do is increase or decrease muscle stiffness, because every other decision is made automatically by the limb’s internal design. Herr decided it was time to apply similar principles to prosthetics.

In the late 1990s he began working on a smarter knee. He packed it with microsensors capable of measuring joint angle and load at a rate of a thousand times per second. The data were then fed into a computer chip that regulated a magnetic field that impacted iron particles floating in an oil mixture surrounding the knee joint. The result was the world’s first artificially intelligent prosthetic—a knee able to adjust dampening on the fly. Even better, the knee could learn, so performance improved over time.

The prosthesis was brought to market as the Rheo Knee by the Icelandic firm Ossur. Time named it one of 2004’s best inventions, and Fortune called it one of the best products of the year. “Using artificial intelligence to control the Rheo Knee was a major step forward for the industry,” says Dr. Richard Satava, professor of surgery at the University of Washington Medical Center and former program manager for advanced biomedical technology at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). But Herr was only getting started.

In the fall of 2003, Rozelle started swimming and began to excel in the weight room. Pretty soon he was bench-pressing 300 pounds. In February, Rozelle did two minutes each of push-ups and sit-ups and swam for 800 yards—passing the Army physical training test in the top 19th percentile for his age group. He took the next step at Vail. Skiing turned out to be no problem; neither did snowboarding. By the end of that week in Vail, Rozelle had taken to heart the motto of Disabled Sports USA—“If I can do this, I can do anything.”

Top among the things Rozelle was interested in doing was finding a way to provide better support for returning wounded soldiers. At the start of the second Gulf war, there was little in the way of follow-up psychological care. He started visiting wounded soldiers at Walter Reed, began to work with the U.S. Olympic Committee Military and Veteran Programs and became a representative for Disabled Sports USA. But as a national spokesman for disabled soldiers, Rozelle knew the best way he could help was to set a great example. Maybe it really was time to take Kievenaar up on his offer.

This was the Army, so of course there was paperwork. What with the forms and the letters and the meetings, the process to get cleared by the medical evaluation board took time. But Rozelle pushed, and on March 4, 2004 he was declared fit for duty.

Rozelle spent the next few months working at Fort Carson and was given a new command on June 17, 2004, four days before the first anniversary of his injury. Two weeks later, Rozelle was back in Iraq, commanding troops on the same field of battle where he’d sustained his injury.

During his first tour back, Rozelle broke three prosthetic feet. His life was never seriously endangered, but that was mostly a matter of luck. Rozelle was frustrated. In the coming years he wrote dozens of articles about this issue, all of them containing the line “We can send an astronaut into space, but we can’t build a better prosthetic device?”

After completing work on the Rheo, Herr set his sights on a much more ambitious challenge: to create an artificial ankle that perfectly mimicked the fluidity of the normal human gait. A lot was at stake. Most amputees walk with a limp. Over time, even the smallest deviations in motion can compound into enormous problems. The constant chafing destroys flesh, nerve and bone, often requiring surgeries to repair.

Around 2002, Herr went to work on a radically new bionic body part. It would be far smarter than anything ever designed. The Rheo’s one computer became five in the new device. He also added a battery pack, more sensors and Bluetooth. Robotics were used to replicate the action of the foot, Achilles tendon and calf muscle—creating what Herr calls “powered plantar flexion.”

Herr also started rethinking the design. As a climber, especially after his accident, Herr had a flamboyant style. In a sport then dominated by earth tones, he favored dyed red hair, dangling feather earrings and neon blue tights. Add to that his customized climbing prosthetics—essentially daggers protruding from his legs—and the effect was startling. Herr wanted something similar from his prosthetics. “People kept making devices that were ugly, that screamed disabled. I wanted to make devices that were sexy and scary and powerful, man-machine hybrids that replace the notion of disabled with the healthy reverence we feel for the Terminator.”

In 2005 word started leaking out that Hugh Herr was building the world’s first bionic ankle. By then, Rozelle was back from his second tour in Iraq, living in Washington, D.C. and helping Walter Reed build a better center for amputees. He definitely heard about Herr’s work. “Cyborg limb replacement,” he says. “Oh yeah, I knew all about Herr’s dream. We all did.”

The following year, in June 2006, at a No Limits Foundation event in Lake Tahoe, Nevada, Rozelle met Herr for the first time. They hit it off, sitting poolside, drinking beer. “I gave him a rash of shit about progress on the ankle,” recounts Rozelle. “I wanted one. He kept saying it wasn’t ready.”

Fabricating a bionic body part for a guy like Rozelle was no small matter. Between 2005 and 2007, mostly wearing a carbon-fiber running leg that operated at a 30 percent energy deficit, Rozelle finished more than a dozen sprint- and Olympic- distance triathlons, five marathons, seven half-Ironman events and his first full-scale Ironman triathlon (2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run); his time was fast enough to qualify for the world championships in Kona, Hawaii. There, Rozelle covered the fabled Ironman course in 12 hours and 46 minutes. He saluted as he crossed the finish line, placing in the bottom third of the field but still ahead of dozens of able-bodied competitors. “It’s pretty strange to see guys with two legs looking at me with jealousy,” says Rozelle, “but that’s what happened.”

Meanwhile, with all the wounded soldiers returning from battle, the military continued to fund bionic research. In 2006, DARPA contracted inventor Dean Kamen, who specializes in revolutionary medical devices, to develop a new kind of arm.

As Kamen put it, “DARPA wanted me to build an arm-hand combo that could pick up a grape without breaking it, which requires very fine haptic sensing; lift a raisin without dropping it, which requires fine motor control and wrist, elbow and shoulder flexibility; be entirely self-contained, including the power supply; weigh less than nine pounds; and fit on a 50th-percentile female frame, 32 inches from the long finger to the shoulder. And even better, I had to finish the job in two years. So you know, I told them they were completely nuts.”

But Kamen’s conscience got the better of him and he took the job. He completed the beta version right on schedule, naming the device the Luke Arm after that fabled Star Wars amputee, Luke Skywalker. (The Luke Arm is now undergoing clinical trials.)

“It was an exciting time,” says Rozelle. “There was finally some hope for real progress.”

In 2007, Herr finished the beta version of the BiOM, as his bionic ankle is now known. Five computers and 12 sensors give the BiOM sufficient intelligence to read and react to differences in terrain and slope— meaning it’s the first robotic foot that can be used to walk uphill. Unlike traditional prosthetic devices, to which a person must adapt his walking style, the BiOM gathers gait data to attune itself to the wearer. This is what the Bluetooth is for: The world’s first true bionic limb is programmable by means of an Android phone.

Time named the BiOM one of the best inventions of 2007. Other accolades followed, but there was significantly more work to be done before the device was ready for the general public. “The dominant challenge was durability,” says Herr. “I was building a prosthetic leg. It’s a transportation device. It can’t fail. But if it’s going to last five years, then it has to be capable of taking 6 million steps—because that’s how many the average person takes in that period. Look, there’s nothing like the human body. There are versions that can walk without failure for 80 years. I was trying for just five—but this was not a trivial problem in robotics.”

By late 2010 Herr felt the BiOM was durable enough for human trials. Because the military was funding much of the work, soldiers were the obvious crash-test dummies. Plus, Rozelle had challenged Herr to build a device for guys like him—so who better to try it out?

In January 2011 he got his shot. Rozelle became the world’s second official bionic man (one other soldier had been fitted before him). As soon as the BiOM was attached, Rozelle went in search of the toughest terrain he could find. “The prosthetists were so happy,” he says. “They were used to seeing guys just walk up and down the hallway. I went outside and found a hill to walk up and down at an angle. It was pretty amazing. I immediately felt I had my real foot back.”

Over the next year, Rozelle and a couple dozen other veteran amputees put the BiOM through its paces. “It was an incredible process,” recalls Tim McCarthy, the CEO of iWalk, the company that builds the BiOM. “Over the past 20 years I’ve introduced dozens of new products—none like this. People put on the BiOM and burst into tears.” Herr had seen it too: “Grizzled truck drivers, guys who haven’t shed a tear in 20 years, just sobbing.”

But the biggest deal—what many think the BiOM’s real legacy will be—is a massive reduction in health care costs. With less pain and exhaustion, amputees don’t stop moving around. They lose weight (tens of pounds), reduce their pain meds (some by up to two thirds) and return to work (for the first time in years). The real proof is that the device costs about $60,000, yet workers’ compensation agents are requesting it, feeling that the savings in medical costs later will more than cover the high price tag. “Beyond changing lives,” says McCarthy, “this has a huge economic benefit. Over time, it’s going to save millions of dollars.”

Herr, meanwhile, isn’t close to being done. He’s beginning to work on an above-the-knee version of the BiOM and is finishing work on the world’s first true bionic exoskeleton, a revolutionary kind of knee brace for able-bodied people that he hopes will be commercially available by 2015. “Right now,” he says, “one of the worst parts of growing old is losing the ability to move around. So imagine taking the bionics in the BiOM and turning it into a strap-on device, something that can restore strength and function to the elderly or anyone with a bum knee.”

Over the past 30 years, Hugh Herr became the first disabled athlete to outperform able-bodied ones at an expert level. He then helped bring prosthetics into the modern age; next he became the first to forge ahead into the bionic era. Already he has bettered thousands of lives. In light of all this, the assumption might be that his debt to Albert Dow—the rescuer who perished so many years ago on Mount Washington— would be paid. But Herr would disagree.

“If you ask me if I’ve done great things in my life, well, I’m very self-critical, so the answer is, ‘Not yet,’” he says. “But that’s almost beside the point. Has that debt been paid? I would say no, never. That debt can never be repaid.”

On a rainy day in February 2012, David Rozelle and a couple of friends approach the curb of a busy three-lane street in Denver. Rozelle, wearing his BiOM, is lost in conversation, not really thinking about what he’s doing. There’s a momentary break in traffic, and he decides to make a run for it. Leaving his friends behind, he bounces off the curb and darts across the first lane, freezes midstride to let an oncoming car pass, then dashes across the next lane, pausing to make sure he’s still clear, and across the final lane, even jumping over a puddle as he hops back onto the sidewalk. Rozelle didn’t even realize that he’d jaywalked until it was pointed out later.

Herr smiles when he hears this story. “Everything I’ve done has been to copy nature. That’s the true definition of bionics—using technology for the emulation or extension of natural biological function. And we humans are spinal animals. To hear that David could pull off this kind of ballet without thinking about it—that’s exactly a spinal animal phenomenon. It worked. Somehow we captured lightning in a bottle.”

“Yeah,” says Rozelle, “but the mad scientists who designed the jet pack, they’re never remembered. The crazy son of a bitch who flew it? He’ll be celebrated forever.”

 

 



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