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Imagining Trend 8 January Jan 2018 1522 8 January 2018

Robots and artificial intelligence at the workplace for people with disabilities

New technology will revolutionize the professional opportunities open to the disabled. Let’s analyse the latest research and the steps being taken by a company as innovative as Microsoft

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Robots, and in particular developments in artificial intelligence for robotics, can create significant job opportunities for the disabled. A European Parliament resolution dated February 2017, “Civil Law Rules on Robotics”, states that not only are today's robots able to perform activities which used to be typically and exclusively human, but the development of certain autonomous and cognitive features – e.g. the ability to learn from experience and take quasi-independent decisions – has made them more and more similar to agents that interact with their environment and are able to alter it significantly. Robots thus become “companions” that play an important role, not just in terms of rehabilitation, but also with regard to care and companionship, “repairing” or “enhancing” human beings (to quote the European Parliament resolution); so much so that “special attention should be paid to the possible development of an emotional connection between humans and robots ‒ particularly in vulnerable groups (children, the elderly and people with disabilities)”. We have been speaking with Furio Gramatica, Head of Technology Innovation and Health Technology Assessment at the Don Carlo Gnocchi Foundation. This institute, at the forefront of smart health and disruptive technologies, has recently entered into a strategic alliance with the Italian Institute of Technology for the application, in the health sphere, of the robot R1, which will be “trained” to enter homes as a care providing-rehabilitation robot and gyms as a rehabilitation robot.

With Mr Gramatica, we tried to imagine the future. “Artificial Intelligence will change the way the disabled access the labour market on three levels: language, the environment, and the detection of habits”, explains Mr Gramatica. In terms of language, the use of artificial intelligence that understands natural language - like the Siri technology we use on our smartphones - creates a powerful interface between a person with motor deficiencies and the world. “Speech and recognition” and “speech synthesis” are both very important for those who use technology as a work tool. “Being able to rely on technology that understands what we need, simply by using our voice, is a great step forward,” says Mr Gramatica.

In the future, reasonable accommodation for people with disabilities will undoubtedly include artificial intelligence.

Furio Gramatica, Head of Technology Innovation at Fondazione Don Carlo Gnocchi

The second point relates to knowledge of the environment, and in this case two scenarios open up: a person in the workplace and a person who takes non-repetitive routes to work or who travels for work. “This has to do with smart cities and ambient intelligence, and centres on being able to communicate with objects in the environment: working on the basis of big data, Artificial Intelligence (AI) pools together the often inhomogeneous data received from these objects and evaluates many different variables before making the most suitable suggestion for the user, which that user can then decide whether or not to accept”, muses Mr Gramatica.

And once in the workplace? “Normally, reasonable accommodation - such as customised ergonomics - is taken into account when designing the workstations of people with disabilities. In the future, reasonable accommodation will undoubtedly include artificial intelligence. The aim, for people with disabilities, is to control all aids in a centralized manner, and not to have an aid for every single problem. What is required is not simply an aid that makes up for a problem. This is because needs and the environment must also be taken into account. The aid may be inadequate if the need changes. Enabling people with disabilities to control the environment centrally allows them to interact with a single object (AI) that understands the instructions and activates the aid required. AI thus becomes a hub, a companion, an interface between external demands and the need to interact with various aids”.

The third area of application relates to detecting habits, a sector that already boasts many apps. In this regard, an artificial intelligence robot becomes a veritable personal assistant who is familiar with the user’s habits, problems and needs: a sort of “secretary” - a figure currently only available to the highest corporate offices, to which the disabled often can’t aspire. “This, however, raises important questions on privacy and data security,” concludes Mr Gramatica.

Is all this merely a flight of fancy? Far from it. Microsoft, for example, is already testing “Emma Watch”, a wearable device that helps to stem the tremors caused by Parkinson's Disease. Still at the testing stage, “Emma Watch” looks like a wristwatch, and is fitted with a tablet-controlled vibrating mechanism that stops the patient’s hand tremors through the use of sensors and artificial intelligence capable of detecting and monitoring the complex symptoms associated with the disease. The idea is that vibrations on the wrist can “shift” the attention of the brain and counteract the tremors. The solution is to create something that is easy to use and wear, and that does not look like a medical device: in short, a watch. Developed by Haiyan Zhang, 39-year-old researcher and Innovation Director at Microsoft Research, it is named after the first person who wore it: 33-year-old Emma Lawton, a graphic designer who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2013 and who saw her lifeline disappear in an instant - the ability to draw letters and lines. For years, Emma could no longer write her name. Now she can write it clearly. Emma first wore the watch that bears her name in June 2016 (see photo above): it was the first time she was filmed, and she ended up in a BBC documentary entitled “The Big Life Fix”.

Ever since I first wore my “smart watch”, I am afraid to take it off; I am scared of breaking it, because it is the only one in existence

33-year-old Emma Lawton, a graphic designer diagnosed with Parkinson’s

For over a year now, Emma Lawton has been wearing her Emma Watch at work: she draws apps and gadgets for Parkinson's UK, and is also a consultant for a company that is ferrying the tourism industry toward digital transformation. “The device doesn't stop my tremor. It gives me some control there. The writing, it's not going to be perfect. But, my God, it's better”, writes Emma (in the photo below, Emma’s writing without and with the device). Zhang is working on developing the technology further, exploring the use of sensors and artificial intelligence to detect and monitor the complex symptoms associated with Parkinson’s, i.e. rigidity, slowness of movement, risk of falls, and tremors.

Another Microsoft research project, “Seeing AI”, involves the use of an app, a smart camera and a mobile phone to provide blind people with information and descriptions of the surrounding world: it recognizes the faces of people, describing their features, the approximate age, and the emotions they express; it enables the user to “read” a document simply by photographing it; it identifies products through their barcode; and it describes the images that appear in apps like Twitter or WhatsApp, and in emails.

Photos of the “Emma Watch” are by Brian Smale

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