The Future of Intelligent Technology and Its Impact on Disabilities

March 16, 2004

Originally published in the Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness October 2003. Excerpted on on March 15, 2004.

Technology for sensory impairments

By 2010, computers will disappear. They will be so tiny that they will be embedded in our environment, in clothing, and so on. We will have high-bandwidth connections to the Internet at all times. We will have eyeglasses for the sighted that display images directly in our retina: contact lenses for full-immersion virtual reality. We will also have relatively powerful (but not human level) artificial intelligence (AI) on web sites&#8212artificial personalities such as the avatar-like Ramona, who greets visitors and answers questions at the web site.

For people who are hearing impaired, we will have systems that provide subtitles around the world. We’re getting close to the point where speaker-independent speech recognition will become common. Machines will create subtitles automatically and on the fly, and these subtitles will be a pretty accurate representation of what people are saying. It won’t be error-free&#8212but then, our own auditory understanding is not error-free, either. We will also have listening systems that will allow deaf persons to understand what people are saying.

For people who are blind, we will have reading machines within a few years that are not just sitting on a desk, but are tiny devices you put in your pocket. You’ll take pictures of signs on the wall, handouts at meetings, and so on. We encounter text everywhere&#8212on the back of packages, on menus, on electronic displays&#8212and these pocket-sized reading machines will enable a blind person to read this material. By 2010, these devices will be very tiny. You will be able to wear one on your lapel and scan in all directions. These devices probably will be used by sighted people as well, because they will allow us to get visual information from all around us.

Such devices will also translate the information from one language to another for everyone. The current reading machine technology used in the Kurzweil 1000 and Kurzweil 3000 reading systems uses a new generation of synthetic speech. Although it sounds relatively normal, it is not recorded human speech.

We are not yet on the verge of creating cybernetic geniuses. But we have many systems in our societies that already can perform intelligently in narrow areas. We have hundreds of examples of these machines. Some of them are flying and landing our airplanes, or guiding intelligent weapons. We have electrocardiogram systems that provide an analysis as accurate as your doctor’s. We have some systems that can diagnose blood-cell images, others that automatically make financial decisions involving stock-market investments. In fact, $1 trillion in stock-market investments use these systems. Other intelligent systems look for credit card fraud and find optimal routes for e-mail messages and cell phone calls. Likewise, a disabled person has a narrow need. A person who is blind needs access to ordinary printed material. A person who is deaf needs to be able to understand ordinary speech from people he or she encounters at random. Devices to perform these tasks can work in close concert with the much broader, more flexible intelligence of the disabled persons themselves.

Enhancing our own intelligence

In some ways, machines can perform better than humans. Computers are much faster than people when they master tasks and can share knowledge. Something a computer has learned can be shared with thousands of other computers instantly, whereas, if I learn French, I can’t just download that to you.

The implication of this will not be just an alien invasion of intelligent machines to compete with us. We are going to enhance our own intelligence by getting closer and closer to machine intelligence&#8212 and that’s already happening.

There are many people walking around now who are essentially cyborgs and have computers in their brains interfacing with their biological neurons. The Food and Drug Administration just approved a neural implant for Parkinson’s disease that replaces the portion of the brain destroyed by that disease. And there are more than a dozen different types of implants like that in use or being developed. Now, they require surgical implantation; but by 2029, we will be able to send these intelligent devices through the bloodstream.

The importance of hanging around

The most profound implication of these developments will be an expansion of human intelligence. Right now, we are restricted to a mere hundred trillion interneural connections. That may sound like a large number, but I personally find it rather limiting. Many people send me books to read, web sites to visit, conferences to attend, and I would love to be able to do all these things, but our human bandwidth is quite limited.

Ultimately, we won’t be restricted to 100 trillion connections. We will able to create new virtual connections with nanobots, so we can expand the number of interneuronal connections we have in our brain many fold. We are today profoundly expanding human intelligence as a species through the Internet and all of our technology. Through much more intimate connections with this technology, we will continue to profoundly expand human intelligence.

Human life expectancy is another one of those exponential trends. Every year during the 18th and 19th centuries, we added a few days to human life expectancy. Now, we are at the intersection of biology and information science. Today, we are adding about 120 days every year to human life expectancy. With the full flowering of the biotechnology revolution, within 10 years, we will be adding more than a year to the human life expectancy every year.

So if we can hang in there for another 10 years, we may actually get to experience the full measure of the profound century ahead.

© 2004 JVIB, American Foundation for the Blind. Reprinted with permission.