Written by Lieve Van Woensel and Guillermo Garrido-Lestache
On 23 June 2015 the Science and Technology Options Assessment Panel (STOA) hosted a workshop on assistive technologies entitled ‘Robots: enabling the disabled or disabling the abled?‘ The workshop’s Chair, MEP Ádám Kósa, who requested the Scientific Foresight project on assistive technologies, opened the discussion with a specially prepared video and underlined the relevance and the importance to the European Parliament of the integration of disabled people in society, education and employment.
The first speaker, Dr Ron McCallum, himself disabled, and speaking from Australia, reviewed progress in the assistive technologies he has used since childhood. He revealed that the last real revolution in assistive technologies for the blind occurred with the advent of computers and software technology in the 1980s. He predicted that robots might represent a similar revolution in the near future. Dr McCallum explained that assistive technologies enable him to access legal material online easily, using brail-designed websites and assistive apps. However, much remains to be done to make the internet fully accessible for persons with disabilities. To this end, Dr McCallum worked with the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). The internet is today the major means of communication and knowledge transfer. Guaranteeing equal internet access is important to expand the possibilities and the horizons of persons with disabilities (who often face barriers in education and employment).
Dr Antal Kuthy followed with a stimulating presentation, including of how KONTAKT, the assistive technology he developed, works. This online system connects deaf and hard of hearing users with sign language interpreters in real-time and also provides real-time speech-to-text interpretation. To demonstrate that assisting technologies such as KONTAKT can be profitable investments, Dr Kuthy remarked that, once made available online, the use of sign language interpreters doubled in Hungary, while at the same time, costs were greatly reduced. He also argued that assistive technologies can be a great opportunity for enterprise, due to the great size of the market, as one in every seven persons in the world could be considered to have some form of disability. In his words: ‘disability can fuel innovation in many ways and offer multiple opportunities for technological investment’. He also suggested that we use the terms ‘new-normals’ or ‘supernormals’ to refer to individuals enabled by assistive technologies. Finally, Dr Kuthy pointed to brain-computer interfaces as a particular technology with far-reaching potential implications for society in general.
Lastly, Dr Marjo Rauhala, from the Technological University of Vienna, discussed her experience and findings as the ethics manager at the Centre of Applied Assistive Technologies (AAT), and as an ethics reviewer for several EU-funded projects. Part of her job consists of working in close cooperation with a number of students with disabilities, some of whom have been co-developers of their own assistive technologies enabling them to complete their studies. Dr Rauhala gave the example of an intelligent and self-adjusting toilet for persons with disabilities to illustrate some of the ethical issues that may arise (e.g. risk of injury, shame of users), and emphasised the important role of ethics training and education. She gave an overview of the ethical dimensions of assistive technologies, as well as of the main ethical challenges – including ‘ethics creep’, and the perception of research subjects as moral entities and not agents – and stated that these are very often ignored because they are considered minor issues.
Mr Kósa closed the session, arguing that technologies could indeed enable humans; however, this progress is useless if we live in disabling societies.
The Scientific Foresight study on assistive technologies will commence in September 2015.