✦ “We’ve got to start with inspiration. Don’t start with technology.” - Dr. Jordan Nguyen
The pace of technological advancement is moving at a staggering rate, with developments in the world of Artificial Intelligence in particular seemingly going into hyperdrive in the past few years. While there have certainly been mixed responses, there can be no doubt that there are huge possibilities for positive innovation to be realised.
The pluses in the business world are self-explanatory in helping any manner of industries conduct seemingly mundane tasks to enhance productivity and customer service via sophisticated and speedy automation. Indeed, according to a report entitled “Global State of AI, 2022” by research firm Frost & Sullivan, “about 87% of enterprises believe that artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) are important in achieving business goals centered around growing revenue, increasing operational efficiency, and boosting customer experience.”
Technology helping humankind
However, productivity, profits and market share aside, it is what the burgeoning tech and AI scene can do to effectively help humankind that continues to create ripples of intrigue – as in bridging gaps between communities and sectors of society that have been historically marginalised by a range of functional impairments or disabilities, be that visual, hearing, physical, or cognitive ability. As the World Bank Group reports, more than 1 billion people, or 15% of the world’s population, experience some form of disability which invariably contributes to barriers preventing full social and economic inclusion. According to key facts provided by the World Health Organisation (WHO), more than 2.5 billion people need one or more assistive products today, a figure estimated to grow by a further 1 billion by 2050 as the global population increases and ages.
Technology is there to help though and will only continue to do so. Better known as assistive technology, certain hardware and software tools have helped people with disabilities carry out tasks such as reading and writing, researching and communicating with others for many years. This can be traced back as far as 1808 when the Italian inventor Pellegrino Turri created the first typewriter to help his blind friend Countess Carolina Fantoni da Fivizzano be able to write legibly. In more recent years Dr. Stephen Hawking leveraged assistive technology to compensate for mobility and speech difficulties via a thumb switch and a blink-switch attached to his glasses to control his computer.
Similar developments in technology have helped dismantle some of the barriers faced by disabled and impaired people and AI is at the forefront of this movement by improving the accessibility of products and services for this group in society. Wheelchairtraveling.com provides an interesting overview on how AI is helping people with physical disabilities, specifically in relation to voice recognition, text-to-speech, image recognition, self-driving cars and domestic robots. While all of this is hugely encouraging, it genuinely feels like just the tip of the iceberg and there is genuine excitement and anticipation with what can be potentially realised to greatly improve the lives of people with disabilities and provide them with more opportunities, greater independence and enhanced quality of life.
Check out Dr. Nguyen's videos here:
One individual for whom this area is a heart-felt passion is Dr. Jordan Nguyen. The Aussie native, a biomedical engineer and inventor, started his company Psykinetic in 2014 with the goal of making life-improving technology both accessible and affordable – as the company’s mantra states, it is “pushing the limits of science and technology to empower bold human ambition”.
True to his quote at the outset of this piece, inspiration is his driver. He is inspired to help others, to create a world where disability needn’t mean complete lack of inclusion. His ambition was fuelled by personal experience to a large extent after he dove into a swimming pool while at University and damaged his neck muscles when he hit the bottom. Luckily he did not endure any serious damage but it did leave him unable to carry out certain tasks and thus curious as to what may have happened if a more tragic scenario had unveiled itself. On learning about the limited options available to quadriplegics, Dr. Jordan dedicated himself to developing technology and to creating a more inclusive future for impaired individuals. He has since gone on to become a published author, present documentaries on ABC and Channel 10 in Australia and become a respected authority and keynote speaker. In 2016 he was nominated for Australian of the Year and recognised as one of Australia’s most innovative engineers.
The Psykinetic website further explains how Dr. Jordan’s achievements have been significant as he and his team have successfully created a mind-controlled wheelchair, numerous Virtual and Augmented reality applications, inclusive gaming, an instrument that enabled a friend with cerebral palsy to perform live music with her eye movements and blinks, and devices that make it possible to control household appliances or even drive cars using only the tiny electrical signals created from eye movements.
One of his more recent inventions is a patented modular support system named PolySpine, which provides head support to users with moderate to severe physical disabilities so that they can participate in rehabilitative and recreational activities outside of a wheelchair or standing pole. It opens the doors to participation and inclusion in activities and hobbies previously never thought feasible, including physiotherapy, kayaking, riding a trike or travel for a young school student. Similarly it means a young pupil being able to sit on the floor with their peers during assembly instead of being always in the back in the wheelchair.
Watch an explanation of the PolySpine here:
Human values in AI
Technology is, of course, imperative to his work although Dr. Jordan is quick to acknowledge this is an area that needs to be treated with respect and appropriate due-diligence as the pace of development only increases; “We’re hitting forks in the road which are astronomical in regards to what it means for the future of humanity,” he said at an event on June 1 at Charles Sturt University entitled “Beyond Superhuman – Technology for Humanity”. This is especially relevant with AI, he added, highlighting the importance of integrating and aligning a good, robust basis of human values into AI programming. “We need to align the values or the underlying structure of something like AI to that of humans, and that’s a very tough challenge, because AI isn’t governed by the same social constructs that we are.
We have to be able to build our humanity into these systems so that they want to lead us to the betterment of humanity, to build new solutions that humans couldn’t. Can we give it the level of purpose that we’re always striving for, to learn, discover and understand ourselves so our lives are fully connected? We’re trying to instill that into AI but you have to actually influence the people who are building those AI systems. However, if there’s one thing I have learnt from all of my travels, all the people I’ve met at so many different events from all walks of life, from the documentaries I’ve done, it is an overwhelming desire to see the world moving to a better place.
AI for the planet
That better place is broad-reaching. Dr. Jordan points to the effective use of AI technology in relation to wildlife conservation, highlighting a recent project by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) that ultimately initiated dialogue and positive action by the central governments of China and Russia in the protection of Siberian tigers and leopards. Footage captured in the wild via camera traps then sent via the cloud enabled different scientists to understand the movements and habits of the animals and to recognise the individual tigers by their stripes and the individual leopards by their spots, similar to how human thumbprints are used for identification.
Similarly, the technology can be used in protecting the environment and, ultimately, our planet. “This is one of the best use cases I see for AI as we move into the future,” Dr. Jordan explained at the June 1 event. “If we are able to effectively build simulations of complex environment systems we can, in essence, create a digital twin. Let’s say we build a digital twin replicating the entire planet, where you’re sending data from the real world into the virtual version, making it as close to the real world as possible. Then, in this digital twin world, you can play out scenarios and test possible solutions to environmental problems. Let’s say in relation to wildfires, we take an area of land, replicate a fire scenario perfectly then send that data into the digital twin system, which plays out in simulation and provides options as to how resources should best be employed, adapting to what’s happening in the real world. We could easily build a world so lifelike, so real, like the one that we have, that will enable us to determine which scenarios work and which do not so as to make critical decisions which could possibly allow humanity to not only survive but thrive in the future.”
Once again, the notion of inspiration underlines much of this, says Dr. Jordan. “We should always start with the inspiration, start with the purpose, what’s the big dream, what’s the big idea that we have for our individual area of work or research? The next big idea for me is to enhance the lives of many others all over the world. And to realise that nothing is impossible these days.”
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