I’ve long wondered about how disabilities would be viewed in a future (h/t May 4, 2017 news item on phys.org) where technology could render them largely irrelevant. A May 4, 2017 essay by Thusha (Gnanthusharan) Rajendran of Heriot-Watt University on TheConversation.com provides a perspective on the possibilities (Note: Links have been removed),
When dealing with the otherness of disability, the Victorians in their shame built huge out-of-sight asylums, and their legacy of “them” and “us” continues to this day. Two hundred years later, technologies offer us an alternative view. The digital age is shattering barriers, and what used to the norm is now being challenged.
What if we could change the environment, rather than the person? What if a virtual assistant could help a visually impaired person with their online shopping? And what if a robot “buddy” could help a person with autism navigate the nuances of workplace politics? These are just some of the questions that are being asked and which need answers as the digital age challenges our perceptions of normality.
The treatment of people with developmental conditions has a chequered history. In towns and cities across Britain, you will still see large Victorian buildings that were once places to “look after” people with disabilities, that is, remove them from society. Things became worse still during the time of the Nazis with an idealisation of the perfect and rejection of Darwin’s idea of natural diversity.
Today we face similar challenges about differences versus abnormalities. Arguably, current diagnostic systems do not help, because they diagnose the person and not “the system”. So, a child has challenging behaviour, rather than being in distress; the person with autism has a communication disorder rather than simply not being understood.
In contrast, the digital world is all about systems. The field of human-computer interaction is about how things work between humans and computers or robots. Philosopher Andy Clark argues that humans have always been natural-born cyborgs – that is, we have always used technology (in its broadest sense) to improve ourselves.
The most obvious example is language itself. In the digital age we can become truly digitally enhanced. How many of us Google something rather than remembering it? How do you feel when you have no access to wi-fi? How much do we favour texting, tweeting and Facebook over face-to-face conversations? How much do we love and need our smartphones?
In the new field of social robotics, my colleagues and I are developing a robot buddy to help adults with autism to understand, for example, if their boss is pleased or displeased with their work. For many adults with autism, it is not the work itself that stops from them from having successful careers, it is the social environment surrounding work. From the stress-inducing interview to workplace politics, the modern world of work is a social minefield. It is not easy, at times, for us neurotypticals, but for a person with autism it is a world full contradictions and implied meaning.
Rajendra goes on to highlight efforts with autistic individuals; he also includes this video of his December 14, 2016 TEDx Heriot-Watt University talk, which largely focuses on his work with robots and autism (Note: This runs approximately 15 mins.),
The talk reminded me of a Feb. 6, 2017 posting (scroll down about 33% of the way) where I discussed a recent book about science communication and its failure to recognize the importance of pop culture in that endeavour. As an example, I used a then recent announcement from MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) about their emotion detection wireless application and the almost simultaneous appearance of that application in a Feb. 2, 2017 episode of The Big Bang Theory (a popular US television comedy) featuring a character who could be seen as autistic making use of the emotion detection device.
In any event, the work described in the MIT news release is very similar to Rajendra’s albeit the communication is delivered to the public through entirely different channels: TEDx Talk and TheConversation.com (channels aimed at academics and those with academic interests) and a pop culture television comedy with broad appeal.