Artificial Intelligence and Special Needs

Artificial Intelligence and Special Needs

At one point, losing a limb or having another special need meant years of doctor visits, decreased ability, and a shorter, less happy life. However, better prosthetics and other devices, many of which are AI-enabled, have made this scenario a thing of the past for many people. For example, check out this couple’s dance. The woman has an artificial leg. These days, some people can run a marathon or go rock climbing, even if they lose their original legs.
Many people see the term special needs as equivalent to a physical or mental impairment, or even a disability. However, almost everyone has some special needs. At the end of a long day, someone with perfectly normal vision might benefit from zooming programs to enlarge text or graphic elements. Color translation software can help someone with normal color vision see details that aren’t normally visible (at least, for someone with normal vision). As people get older, they tend to be more helpful to hear, see, touch, or otherwise interact with common objects. Likewise, assistance with tasks such as walking can keep a person out of a nursing home and into their home for the rest of their life. The point is that using different types of AI-enabled technologies can greatly help everyone lead a better life.

Consider software-based solutions
Many people who use computers today rely on some type of software-based solution to meet specific needs. One of the most popular of these solutions is a screen reader called Job Access With Speech (JAWS) that tells you about viewing content using complex methods. As you might imagine, every technology that both data science and artificial intelligence relies on to adapt and interpret data and then deliver a result is likely to occur within JAWS software, making it a good way for anyone to understand the capabilities and limitations of software-based solutions. The best way to see how this works for you is to download and install the software, then use it blindfolded to perform specific tasks on your system. (Avoid anything that will scare you, because you will make mistakes.)
Accessibility software helps people with disabilities perform amazing tasks. It can also help others to understand what it will be like when there is a special need. A large number of such applications are available, but check out Vischeck or one example. This allows you to see graphics the same way people with certain types of color blindness see them. Of course, the first thing you’ll discover is that the term “color blindness” is actually incorrect; People with these conditions see color just fine. The color is simply converted to a different color, so the term “color shift” would probably be better.

Rely on increased hardware
Many types of special needs require more than just software to deal with them appropriately. The “Considering the Use of Exoskeletons” section, earlier in this chapter, tells you about the different ways you see exoskeletons being used today in preventing injury, increasing normal human abilities, or meeting special needs (such as allowing paraplegics to walk). However, many other types of hardware enhancement meet other needs, and the vast majority require some level of AI to function properly.
Consider, for example, the use of eye squinting systems. Early systems relied on a template installed on top of the screen. A quadriplegic can look at the individual letters, which will be captured by two cameras (one on each side of the screen) and then typed into the computer. By typing commands in this way, a quadriplegic can perform basic tasks on the computer.
Some early eye sight systems were connected to a robotic arm through a computer. The robotic arm can perform very simple but important actions, such as helping users get a drink or scratching their nose. Modern systems actually help connect the user’s brain directly to the robotic arm, making it possible to perform tasks such as eating without assistance.

Seeing artificial intelligence in prosthetics
You can find many examples of artificial intelligence used in prosthetics. Yes, there are some negative examples, but most of the newer visions of prosthetics are based on dynamic approaches that require an AI to perform. One of the most amazing examples of artificial intelligence-enabled prosthetics is the fully dynamic foot of Hugh Herr. These feet and ankles work so well that Hugh can actually perform tasks like rock climbing. You can see his recent presentation at TED.
The ethical dilemma that we may have to think about at some point in the future (fortunately not today) is when prosthetics actually allow wearers to exceed their original human capacity. For example, in the movie Eon Flux, Sithandra has hand to feet. Hands are basically a type of grafted prosthetic for someone who has had normal feet. The question arises whether this type of prosthetic application is valid, beneficial or even desirable. At some point, a group of people will need to sit down and make sure of where the use of prosthetics to keep humans as humans should end (assuming we decide to remain human and not evolve to some point next). Obviously, you won’t see anyone today with hands and feet.