What I Learned During My “Sabbatical” at the MIT Media Lab (Part Two)

Why Inventing Technologies for the Disabled is Not Just Right but Smart Business

Q. What do a child with autism, an Iraq war-veteran amputee and a senior citizen with Alzheimer’s have in common? (Other than having disabilities that begin with “A.”)

A. They are all the early adopters of radical new technologies that will make all our lives better in the future.

This was one of the most surprising things I learned at the MIT Media Lab. Let me explain.

For my entire career as an entrepreneur, I assumed that developing innovative technologies for people with disabilities, while the “right thing” to do, was not a particularly promising business proposition. Within a year of becoming director of the Media Lab, I learned that I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The story began a few years before I arrived at the Lab, when researchers began to explore how to augment human cognitive and physical abilities. They even flirted with the idea of creating “super-humans” in an initiative they called “10X:Human Machine Symbiosis.”

By the time I joined the Lab, the researchers had focused their efforts on creating technologies aimed at those with physical or cognitive deficits.

Professor Rosalind Picard and her Affective Computing group were developing social/emotional face-readers for people with autism.

The PowerFoot Biom, which came out of work by the MIT Media Lab's Biomechatronics group. (Copyright iWalk 2011)

Professor Hugh Herr and his Biomechatronics group were designing robotic ankle prostheses for lower-leg amputees. Professor Tod Machover and his Opera of the Future group were experimenting with digital music interfaces for people with cognitive disabilities like Alzheimer’s disease.

I found all these efforts to be inspirational. But since I was responsible for raising funds for the Media Lab, I worried that its corporate sponsors wouldn’t fund this type of “socially relevant” research. When I mentioned my concern to Professor Seymour Papert (co-founder of the field of artificial intelligence and the world’s expert in how children use computers to learn), he said that I was looking at it all backwards.

“We are all disabled, just at different levels,” he explained.

For example, people with autism have difficulty reading the emotions of others, but so do most of us on occasion. Alzheimer’s patients struggle with memory problems, but who among us doesn’t? Amputees have trouble walking normally, but so do many elderly people.

Papert couldn’t see why technologies that help people considered to be “disabled,” both mentally and physically, wouldn’t also have a huge market—virtually everyone on the planet.

This brilliant man turned out to be right. It was not long until Roz Picard came to me with a list of more than two dozen Media Lab sponsors – in industries ranging from entertainment to consumer products to financial services to retail – who had seen her face-reading technology for people with autism and were interested in applying it in their businesses. At first, I was shocked. When Roz explained that these companies were looking to better understand the emotional reactions of their customers to their products, it started to make sense.

Andrew Marecki of the MIT Media Lab’s Biomechatronics group performs a metabolic test of a 2011 version of the running exoskeleton. (Photo: Andy Ryan Photography)

Meanwhile, Hugh Herr and his students were applying what they had learned designing robotic prostheses for amputees to building ultra-lightweight “exoskeletons” that everyone could wear. The goal was to allow a person to run with the same level of metabolic expenditure as walking. This could really change the world of human mobility. Think about “exo-running lanes” on streets and highways, and new “exo-sports.”

And Tod Machover’s student Adam Boulanger was applying digital music interfaces he had developed for people with autism and Alzheimer’s to detect these disorders in their earliest stage in the general population. With alarming increases in the incidence of both of these diseases, early detection could benefit hundreds of millions of people.

I suppose this “disabled first, everyone afterward” approach to innovation shouldn’t have been such a surprise to me. After all, the keyboard on my smart phone is a descendant of the typewriter, invented by the Italian Pelligrino Turri in the early nineteenth century to enable the blind to write. And didn’t I learn in elementary school that Alexander Graham Bell’s inspiration for inventing the telephone was to be able to communicate with his hearing-impaired mother?

 

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