Yesterday I had the opportunity to attend a unique symposium held by the MIT Media Lab. The title of the symposium was h2.0, but it had nothing to do with water. That's because the "h" stands for humans.
Right off the bat I knew this would be different than many other MIT events that I had attended. The main host of h2.0 was award-winning journalist John Hockenberry, who used his considerable television news show chops to put a dynamic, engaging and often funny face on some very serious research.
The tag line of the event was "new minds, new bodies, new identities," and for the most part they delivered on that vision. From the early keynote by Oliver Sacks to the stirring finale (more on that in a second), the h2.0 symposium challenged ideas on what makes a human being, how environments and tools are shaped for human use, and even on how commonly perceived disabilities can be turned into advantages.
Hockenberry's co-host for the event was MIT Media Lab's Professor Hugh Herr. Herr is an expert in biomechatronics and displayed some stunning advances in building new prostheses for amputees. And the way he displayed it was surprising for many as the professor himself is a bilateral amputee, and he demonstrated a new powered prosthetic ankle by displaying it as one of his own prosthetics as he moved about the stage. This actually just turned out to be a prelude to Herr's conclusion of the show, when Herr, who is an avid climber, scaled a climbing wall on the stage using prosthetics that he designed specially for mountain climbing that give him advantages that those with flesh-and-blood legs lack.
This was one of the main focuses of the last few sessions. Herr and another speaker, athlete and model Aimee Mullins, who is also a bilateral amputee, made a fairly convincing case that their prosthetics give them advantages that others lack, essentially letting them "hack" their own body to provide advantages that a single model flesh-and-blood leg lacks.
However, the biggest show stopper of the event was when Dan Ellsey, who has cerebral palsy, performed a live symphony using software and equipment that was developed at the media labs.
I highly recommend watching the archived videos of the event that are available at h20.media.mit.edu.