Assistive technology follows, relies upon and benefits from the developments of mainstream computer technologies. While I was recently watching IBM’s “Watson” compete with Jeopardy champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, I was amazed at the computer’s ability to run algorithms and search its internal databases to rapidly determine the answers to a surprisingly high number of the questions. The system’s ability to understand Jeopardy’s unusual method of posing questions, within the context of the categories like “Beatles People” or “Literary Character APB” and come up with answers in milliseconds was inspiring from a technological perspective.
Watson’s performance was also interesting within the context of “The Turing Test” whereby, in 1950, Alan Turing predicted that at some future point answers provided by a computer and answers provided by a human would be indistinguishable from one another. Whether or not Watson passed the Turing Test is arguable, but it does cause me to think about a prominent technologist, Ray Kurzweil, whom I have had the honor to briefly meet at a conference a few years ago. Dr. Kurzweil is well-known within the assistive technology industry as being instrumental in the invention and development of a number of assistive technologies including the Kurzweil 1000 and Kurzweil 3000 software. Additionally, just a few years ago the Kurzweil reader proved to be a groundbreaking technology in allowing people with disabilities to scan and read materials “on the fly”, providing access to everything from restaurant menus to scientific documents in college lecture halls.
In his 1999 book, The Age of Spiritual Machines, Ray Kurzweil made some other predictions that are interesting. For example:
– 2009: Computers will be primarily portable, rotating memory (CD ROMS) are one their way out, virtually all communication will be digital and encrypted, most books and music will be delivered by digital download, and telemedicine will be widely used.
– 2019: Computers will be embedded in the walls and furniture, cables and wires will have mostly disappeared, blind people will use special glasses to interpret the world through speech, Deaf people will use special glasses to interpret the world through signs and text, people with spinal cord injuries will walk with the assistance of robotic exoskeletons and vehicles will primarily drive themselves.
– 2029: A $1000 computer will be 1000 times more powerful than the human brain, brain implants will deliver visual and auditory information directly—bypassing the eyes and ears, reverse engineering of the human brain has been completed.
Although some of these predictions inspire me, others frighten me a bit. And while I’m not sure how far along this road of technological development Watson has put us, I am also reminded that other predictions have not been quite so accurate. For example:
“I think there is a world market for maybe five computers” ~Thomas Watson, Chairman of IBM in 1943
“There is no reason why anyone would want a computer in their home” ~Ken Olsen, President of Digital Equipment Corporation in 1977
“640K should be enough for anybody” ~Bill Gates in 1981 (Author’s note: Windows 7 requires approximately 2 million times this amount of hard disk space for minimum installation.)
Regardless of whether or not these predictions become reality, I am confident that people will continue to leverage technology to find ways to increase efficiencies and to increase each other’s abilities to learn, grow, and inspire one another. I’m also confident that the people active in the field of assistive technology will continue to be an active part of that effort and will continue to work to use technology to increase the independence of people with disabilities. In Indiana, Easter Seals Crossroads leads that charge. Let us know how we can help you and those around you to leverage technology to make the prediction of greater independence a reality.
About Wade Wingler
Wade began working as an assistive technology instructor at Easter Seals Crossroads in 1993. Since that time, he has developed his leadership and technical skills and now oversees the Easter Seals Crossroads “Tech Team,” clinical state-wide assistive technology services for the agency and the Indiana Assistive Technology Act (INDATA) grant for the entire state of Indiana.