My Research trip to Reykjavik: ‘othered’ bodies and The Toilet

Our new animation, The Toilet is on tour!   A few weeks ago, the tour began as Dr Jenny Slater (Reader in Education & Disability Studies) and I travelled to Reykjavik, Iceland for our animation’s WORLD PREMIERE. 

Over the next year, we will be taking conversations of toilets, disability, gender and access to grassroots disability and queer arts and activist spaces internationally to different spaces, including film festivals and activist groups.

This blog post summarises the event:

Activists in Reykjavik launch the new Around the Toilet film

Technology: to augment or not to augment … that is the question?

As a digital artist who uses both assistive and mainstream technology, I am disturbed and excited by the idea of augmentations that provide an alternative way of experiencing the world, and for me, assist me to make my work. I currently work in a variety of digital mediums and recently took part in the D2art project for disabled visual artists (funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and led by the University of Birmingham – in partnership with DASH).

D2art…

The aim of D2art is to explore the use of technologies to remove barriers experienced by some disabled visual artists.  The project focused on software and computer based graphic design and editing programs, such as Photoshop. I use programs like Photoshop on standard computer equipment with a specialist trackball instead of a mouse for editing. Using my trackball for prolonged periods of time has caused RSI problems, and existing dictate software is impossible to use because of my speech impairment. So I was keen to explore a few possible alternatives to both my trackball and dictate programs.

 

Tobii EyeX
Tobii EyeX

During my session I used Tobii EyeX (left), Enable Viacam, Finger Mouse, Leap Motion, Oculus Rift and Steady Mouse. The most useful software for me was the Tobii EyeX – a fairly reasonably priced eye tracking software. Although I found it was too fast for fine control, I could see the potential use it has for screen jumping and scrolling in conjunction with my existing trackball.

 

Dr Chris Creed, leading the research, explained that other participants had experienced similar problems. He discussed the need to develop a whole new photo editing software that is made specifically for use with assistive technologies, such as eye tracking. Exciting stuff!

When it comes to assistive technology for producing art there are revolutionary ways of making music, including using your brainwaves, in real-time. D2Art did make me wonder whether there will ever be a similar programme for visual artists? Will future disabled artists be able to operate graphic design software, or even a camera, using mind control? lf so, would this type of augmentation end up making disabled artists ‘more enhanced’?

 

Enhanced Artists …

The prospect of technology that enables disabled artists to be more enhanced than their non-disabled counterparts might seem farfetched. But since the 2012 Paralympics this phenomenon has come into mainstream discourse for disabled athletes. Sportsperson’s prosthetic limbs, such as those used by Oscar Pistorius, surpass the capabilities of biological limbs – making these athletes ‘enhanced’ rather than ‘disabled’.

Augmented Eye - Bionic Eyes
Bionic Eye

Bioethicist, Andy Miah, refers to the prospect of these types of enhancements as becoming the optimal for “faster, stronger, further and more accurate performances”. Guardian journalist, Jemima Kiss, recently wrote an article about the climber Hugh Herr and his bionic legs. She explores the idea of bionics becoming so appealing that some people may choose to amputate just so that they can augment their bodies – creating a far more profound human digital divide: the augmented, and the unaugmented.

 

This divide not only questions who exactly is disabled, but also raises questions about our relationship with technology and what it means to be human in the twenty first century. Using my eyes to operate the curser did make me feel like I was almost becoming as one with the computer or more alarmingly functioning ‘under its control’. In this context, are contemporary philosophers such as Braidotti right – is the human an out-dated phenomenon? Critiques of the technological society often seem obsessed by a fear that what is happening is profoundly unnatural, that we are becoming post-human, entering what Professor Sherry Turkle has called “the robotic moment”.  I certainly found eye-gaze software slightly disconcerting in this way, but perhaps this is no different from early anxieties about the telephone. Lets not forget we were once fearful of the telephone’s unnatural ability to separate the voice from the body.

 

Appropriate use of technology…

I really do support initiatives in new technologies, particularly ones that focus on removing disabling barriers and improving quality of life. But I also feel that we sometimes need to question when it is appropriate to use technology. Sometimes I find it helpful to take part in more kinaesthetic ways of learning or creating work even though these methods are physically difficult. Research by Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer demonstrates that students who write out their notes on paper actually learn more:

hand writingMueller and Oppenheimer had students take notes in a classroom setting and then tested students on their memory … and their ability to synthesize and generalize the information.  Half of the students were instructed to take notes with a laptop, and the other half were instructed to write the notes out by hand…who used laptops took more notes.  In each study, however, those who wrote out their notes by hand had a stronger conceptual understanding and were more successful in applying and integrating the material than those who used laptops.

Certainly the module I did the best at during University was one that happened to be in a classroom with wide enough desk space for me to handwrite notes, where I would normally have taken notes using a laptop. Of course it needs to be recognised that using technologies is crucial to some people who may have little or no alternative.

And if there is one thing I did take with me from three years at university it is this; always finish an essay with the opening ‘title’.

‘To augment or not to augment … that is the question?’

“Will future disabled artists be able to operate graphic design software, or even a camera, using mind control? lf so, would this type of augmentation end up making disabled artists ‘more enhanced’?”

Gemma testing Tobii EyeX

 

“Using my eyes to operate the curser did make me feel like I was almost becoming as one with the computer or more alarmingly functioning ‘under its control’.”

 

Augmented Me – Technology for Generation Z

Daisywheel Brother TypewriterThroughout 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.

 

assistiveRobin 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.

 

Google Glass is 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.

 

 

 

 

 

robot personal assistant CM

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.