Throughout my life I have used a range of assistive and/or mainstream technology to break down the disabling barriers I experience. My initial introduction to assistive technology was the daisywheel electronic typewriter. Heavy and cumbersome by today’s standards, in the 1980s this machine transformed the way that I was able to keep up with my non-disabled peers at school. A LED display allowed me to edit two lines of text on the fly without the mess of correction fluid.
Modern day digital technology has continued to support my ability to study, work and, most importantly, to be creative. The deejay software I used in my twenties, for instance, turned my laptop into a set of virtual decks, enabling me to deejay with precision and ease.
I like to think that I was Computer deejaying long before the likes of Professor Jam or Daft Punk, but that might be a slight exaggeration! First developed in the late 1990s, this software has evolved over time and with today’s Ipad version it has even greater scope for breaking down a range of disabling barriers.
Technology has moved on in unimaginable ways since either my school days or deejaying twenties, and last month I attended a conference showcasing some mind blowing new and developing assistive technologies. The IIC (Independence, Inclusion, Choice) show was a large-scale celebratory event with various seminars, displays and interactive zones including a Multi Sensory and Learning Zone, Adaptive Sports Zone, Super Sized Mobility Car Showroom and Family Fun inclusive Activity Space.
Whilst there I attended a brilliant seminar run by Abilitynet, who have been providing disabled people with IT support for over 30 years -Stephen Hawkins was one of their earliest customers in the 1980s.
Robin Christopherson, Head of Digital Inclusion at AbilityNet, took us on an intriguing tour of robotic limbs, driverless cars and brain-controlled computers. I found the technology he demonstrated both illuminating and sinister in equal measures.
One of the latest devices he talked about was Google Glass – a wearable computer with an optical head-mounted display. Recent apps, developed for Google Glass, have the capability of reading human emotions, recognising faces and whether that face has a criminal record.
For people with limited dexterity, Google Glass does provide a good alternative to physically holding a smartphone. It may also be useful for people who have difficulty recognising facial expressions or remembering names. However, I’m not convinced it would help people who are vulnerable by providing information about whether someone has a criminal record. I find the thought of having access to this information quite unnerving.
Whilst some people may feel that this technology would make us safer, I think it would lead to vigilantism and extreme paranoia. Arguably it may also dull people’s natural capabilities to accurately discriminate and use their own instincts. And what happens to people with a conviction that is wrong? Unsurprisingly, there has been a backlash against Google Glass and the unstoppable pace of augmentative technology.
Another amazing but controversial development Christopherson talked about was ‘personal assistance robots’ and medical robotics. Undoubtedly it was quite extraordinary to see a paralyzed woman feeding herself by controlling a robotic arm using just her mind. This robotic arm is still currently lab-based because it is so bulky – but the long-term goal is to make the technology smaller and wireless, so that it can be used at home.
Just as astonishing is the progress of the humanoid robot that now has enough AI (artificial intelligence) to respond to emotions, make basic conversation and carry out simple tasks.
Really incredible cutting edge life changing technology – so what is the ethical dilemma?
It is true that these robotic devices would improve the dignity of disabled or elderly people to perform basic everyday tasks (e.g., cooking, eating or self-cleaning tasks) without having to rely on human assistance. Robotic assistants would also be much easier to manage – with just a turn off / turn on button! Some time ago, actor Liz Carr wrote a great blog illustrating the complexities of employing human PAs (personal assistants). Like Liz, I have employed human PAs for a number of years and in many ways the thought of a robotic version does have some appeal – particularly as my Google calendar has just reminded me that I need to arrange PA holiday cover for next week!
However, robotic assistants would inevitably reduce good old-fashioned human contact, which is particularly important for people who are isolated. Numerous studies have demonstrated the importance of human interactions on our health and well-being. Humans are inherently social creatures and need each other – I’m not convinced that AI will ever fulfil that need. Moreover, will we be able to control AI once it achieves human-level intelligence?
Somewhat less space age, but just as interesting was the seminar about Clicker 6 speech supported literacy software. Designed by Crick, Clicker helps learners find and correct errors, follow the text and review what they have written. It has automatic speech feedback, intelligent word prediction (which can suggests words that fit the context of the pupil’s writing), and over 2500 curriculum pictures. Clicker 6 can be used with switch technology and runs on a PC and Ipad. It also works with a webcam, onscreen keyboard and can act as a communication tool for people without speech.
As well as school children Clicker 6 also could be helpful for University students, particularly those who have dyslexia. Clicker has the potential to create sophisticated wordbanks using text from most web pages, or online documents – this kind of resource could be invaluable for essay writing (hopefully without upsetting Turnitin!) A far cry from my electronic typewriter.
What struck me about many of the exhibits was that the marvellous new technologies showcased often come with a super-duper price tag. I couldn’t help cynically thinking that only the few will benefit from the life changing products on offer – most disabled people these days can barely afford the basics, and funding for such items is getting ever harder to secure.