Technological progress has its pitfalls, and there are those that would choose to misuse it for nefarious means. For all of the terrible ways that people have abused the privilege of technological achievement, however, there are examples of it changing lives for the better, and nowhere is this more evident than in how it has helped people with disabilities to overcome the challenges they face everyday.
One new technology that is greatly helping amputees is 3D printing, which is enabling prosthetic limbs to be produced at a far more affordable price. Plymouth-based firm Open Bionics, for one, has designed a 3D-printed advanced bionic hand that costs less than £1,000. Their innovative new idea took first price in the UK leg of the 2015 James Dyson Award, and will go forward to compete for the $46,965 global prize.
For those who are paralyzed or unable to use any of their limbs at all, such as quadriplegics, the mind is all they have, and companies are making huge strides in harnessing this to take control of the body. Researchers have developed what they have called a 'bionic spinal cord’, a paperclip-sized implant that lets wearers control an exoskeleton with just the power of thought. Science journal Nature Biotechnology published results of the pre-clinic trial, which showed that the device is capable of recording high-quality signals emitted from the brain's motor cortex without the need for open brain surgery.
Neurologist and principal author, Dr Thomas Oxley of the Royal Melbourne Hospital, The Florey Institute of Neurosciences and the University of Melbourne, said of the technology: 'Our vision, through this device, is to return function and mobility to patients with complete paralysis by recording brain activity and converting the acquired signals into electrical commands, which in turn would lead to movement of the limbs through a mobility assist device like an exoskeleton.’
Advances in robotics are also providing a huge boost. PR2 robots can act as ‘body surrogates’ for those unable to use their own, allowing them to complete tasks and see things that would otherwise have been unavailable to them. They use a head tracker which picks up tiny head movements to control a computer that controls the robot remotely, allowing users to do things like scratch and shave themselves.
Another way that the disabled are being helped with mobility is driverless cars. They have the potential to act as a way for anyone unable to operate a motor vehicle - the visually impaired, and those with physical and mental handicaps - providing independent, safe transportation. Google’s driverless cars have been the most significant foray into the self-driving space, and they are already hitting the road in selected areas. Thanks to Machine Learning, the cars can bypass 80% of any unexpected issues they’re faced with, and there are currently limits on how fast they can go, but it is only a matter of time until the playing field is leveled when it comes to driving.
There are 39 million blind people in the world who could benefit from driverless cars. However, a more ideal situation would obviously be to see. Roughly 90% of the blind have at least some level of light perception, and Stephen Hicks, a neuroscientist at Oxford University, has developed ‘smart glasses’ that accentuate the contrast between light and dark objects. The nearest image is bright, whereas the rest of the field is black, and the contrast between them is set to maximum, enabling clearer shape outlines.
Many of these technologies are in the early stages of development, but we should be heading towards a world in which the disabled can carry out all of their everyday tasks without having to rely on assistance