Assistive technology (AT) is an umbrella term for various devices that can help individuals with disabilities perform activities in their daily life (independently or with assistance), such as moving around, cooking and eating, bathing and grooming, toileting, dressing, and engaging in social, educational and civic activities.
Assistive technology can promote greater independence by ameliorating the impact of disabilities and thereby enable the user to carry out more activities with less or no assistance from others. This is not only beneficial for the individual but can also lighten caregiver load for family and professional caregivers.
Certain types of assistive technology can be an important part of rehabilitation work in both adults and children, and may, over time, facilitate improvements that are noticeable even when the assistive technology is not being used. It can for instance be physical, cognitive and communicative improvements.
In a study published in 2008, the use of assistive technology was shown to facilitate improvements in the users. The study encompassed 1,342 infants, toddlers and preschoolers who all had at least one physical, cognitive, developmental or sensory disability. (Source: Desch, Larry W.; Gaebler-Spira, Deborah (June 1, 2008). “Prescribing Assistive-Technology Systems: Focus on Children With Impaired Communication”. )
What are prostheses?
Prosthesis is a Greek word meaning addition, application or attachment. In medicine, a prosthesis is an artificial device that aims to replace a missing body part, e.g. a limb lost through trauma or a heart valve missing due to a congenital disorder. Dentures, certain hearing aids, and artificial vision enhancers are other examples of prostheses.
- The plural form of prosthesis is prostheses.
- The word prosthetic is an adjective, e.g. “a prosthetic knee”.
- The term prosthetics denotes the health fields allied with prostheses and their use.
Prosthesis development falls within the field of biomechanics – the science of using mechanical devices together with the muscular, musculoskeletal, and nervous systems to assist or enhance abilities lost by trauma, disease, or defect.
In its strictest definition, a prosthesis must be a complete finished prosthetic item. Example: A C-Leg knee alone is not a prosthesis; it is only a prosthetic component as it is still lacking its attachment system. In everyday language, few people adhere to this more narrow definition of what a prosthesis is.
What is a powered exoskeleton?
A powered exoskeleton is a wearable mobile machine. The typical powered exoskeleton is powered by electricity from a battery and makes use of pneumatics, levers and/or hydraulics. Modern powered exoskeletons can sense the user´s motions and send signals to the motors to comply with the user´s intent.
Powered exoskeletons are currently being developed for several purposes, including:
- Assisting the user by ameliorating the impact of one or more disabilities, e.g. by giving extra force, stability and endurance to limbs that has been weakened by injury or disease. In some cases, the exoskeleton is used together with other aids; walking might for instance be possible for a disabled user who combines the exoskeleton with a walker for support.
- Giving “super human” strength and other abilities to non-disabled users who must carry out especially difficult tasks, e.g. safely lifting and moving heavy patients in a hospital, search and rescue efforts, disaster clean-up, and similar.
Wearable technology for users with disabilities
The term wearable technology is commonly used for small smart electronic devices that can be worn as accessories or as implants. In the 21st century, wearable technology is utilized by both disabled and non-disabled users, and for a wide range of purposes.
Examples of wearable technology developed to assist people with specific disabilities are the OrCam devices, the eSight and the BrainPort.
OrCam devices, including the well-known OrCam MyEye, are artificial vision devices for users with impaired vision. OrCam MyEye “sees” objects and describes them (audio feedback) to the user, and can even turn text into audio and read supermarket barcodes. It is a wireless smart-camera attached to eyeglass frames, and the audio emerges close to the users ear. A fairly recent development in the OrCam product assortment is face-recognition ability.
Another example of wearable technology for users with visual impairments is the eSight for people with low vision. It comes with two HD colour displays (one in front of each eye) with prescription lenses, and the displays integrate high contrast OLED screens for a 37.5 degrees field-of-view. A camera captures video in Ultra HD and allows for a maximum of 24x zoom. At the time of writing, the most recent eSight is the eSight 4 wich entered the market in early 2020.
BrainPort is a solution where an electrode array is placed atop the tongue and utilized to send sensory information to the wearer´s brain. It was developed to aid people suffering from certain balance problems, e.g. stroke victims whose sense of balance had been damaged by the stroke.
Today, BrainPorts are also used by wearer´s with visiual disabilities, as the BrainPort V100 Oral Electronic Vision Aid can allow a blind person to see their surroundings in polygonal and pixel form. A camera captures the surroundings, a chip converts the information to impulses, and the impulses are sent into the user´s brain through an electrode array on the tongue. The human brain interprets the impulses as visual signals and redirect them to the visual cortex, allowing the person to see. So far, the images are polygonal or in pixel form, but can still be highly useful when someone wants to navigate their surroundings.
How can AI help?
Artificial Intelligence (AI) has been making significant strides in assisting individuals with disabilities. By automating certain tasks and providing tools to overcome specific challenges, AI is helping to improve the quality of life for many disabled individuals. Below are some ways AI is benefiting the disabled community:
- Voice Recognition: For those with mobility impairments, AI-driven voice recognition systems like Siri, Google Assistant, and Alexa allow users to control smart devices, search the internet, and perform various tasks without the need for manual interaction.
- Natural Language Processing (NLP): AI systems with NLP can convert speech to text and vice versa, helping those who are hearing or speech impaired. For example, Google’s Live Transcribe instantly turns spoken words into text.
- Smart Home Technology: AI-enabled smart home devices help individuals with disabilities by allowing them to control lighting, temperature, door locks, and appliances through voice commands or smartphone apps.
- Visual Assistance: AI-driven applications like Seeing AI and Be My Eyes assist visually impaired individuals in understanding their surroundings. They can describe the environment, read out text, recognize faces, and even identify products.
- Predictive Text and Customized Keyboards: For people with mobility challenges or coordination difficulties, AI-driven predictive text and customized keyboards can facilitate communication by minimizing the number of keystrokes needed to compose messages.
- Mobility Solutions: AI is being integrated into wheelchairs, making them smarter and more adaptive. These smart wheelchairs can navigate and adapt to environments autonomously, making it easier for individuals with severe mobility impairments.
- Mental Health Support: AI-driven chatbots and applications are increasingly used to provide mental health support to individuals, including those with disabilities who may find accessing traditional mental health services challenging.
- Personalized Learning: AI can tailor educational content and methods to suit the specific needs of individuals with learning disabilities, helping them to learn more effectively.
- Prosthetics and Exoskeletons: Advanced AI-controlled prosthetics and exoskeletons are providing amputees and those with paralysis improved mobility and autonomy by responding to muscle movements and providing support where needed.
- Facial Expression Recognition: For individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), understanding emotions can be difficult. AI applications that can recognize and interpret human emotions through facial expressions can assist in improving the social interactions of individuals with ASD.
- Emergency and Health Monitoring: AI-driven monitoring systems can detect falls, irregular heartbeats, or other emergencies and automatically notify caregivers or emergency services, which is particularly beneficial for individuals with various disabilities.
- Remote Therapy and Rehabilitation: AI-driven systems are allowing disabled individuals to undergo therapy and rehabilitation remotely. These systems can guide exercises, monitor progress, and provide feedback to healthcare professionals.
As AI technology continues to evolve, even more innovative solutions will likely emerge to further support the needs of individuals with disabilities. However, it’s important to approach the development and application of these technologies with ethical considerations in mind to ensure that they are accessible, respectful, and beneficial to all users.