For centuries, incredible people have been doing incredible things, making the impossible, possible – something to be challenged, not accepted. And people with disabilities are often leading by example, facing adversity head on, and achieving truly remarkable feats. 

From brail and hearing aids to motorised scooters, technological advancements have been opening up new possibilities for disabled people for a long time, allowing them to experience life in ways that weren’t previously an option. And, with an estimated 1.3 billion people worldwide – 16% of the global population – living with a significant disability (including approximately 21% of the UK) as well as the demands of modern society moving at an unprecedented pace, the necessity for continued support remains clear. This is an area where both artificial intelligence and robotics are thriving. 

Championing Inclusive Design

Over recent years, organisations have been championing the concept of inclusive design, crafting new products and tools with a wide range of disabilities in mind, ensuring technology works for the benefit of as many as possible. Audiobooks and video captioning are both earlier small-scale examples, while we now implement plenty of creations into our daily lives for greater accessibility within the home. AI-voice-assisted technologies such as Alexa and Amazon Echo are allowing disabled people to access information, control their environment and communicate with others with minimal effort. Taking it one convenient step further, Google’s Parrotron learns pronunciation over time and translate users’ words into clear speech in the form of audio or text messages.

We may take the likes of Alexa for granted, but these (and many other) innovations are helping young disabled people across the globe improve their daily lives and secure more job opportunities than ever before, leading to a more inclusive future for all. Considering the unemployment rate is 7.2% for people with disabilities in the UK, compared to 3.2% for non-disabled people, this can only be a good thing. 

Focussing on the sheer extent as to how far artificial intelligence and robotics can push boundaries, the not-so-distant future promises widespread access to self-driving vehicles, but there are some developments that offer capacities almost too advanced to fathom, until you see they’re already changing the world today. 

Advocating ‘artificial intelligence for improving human wellbeing’, Brazilian company HOOBOX Robotics collaborated with Intel to launch the world’s first wheelchair with the ability to be controlled solely by facial expressions, utilising an adapter kit to process data in real-time, directing the movement of the user. Best of all, users can customise the functionality of each input to play to their individual strengths, and it’s compatible with 95% of wheelchairs. 

The influence of HOOBOX and other game-changers has inspired and urged others to follow suit, or create their own… Exoskeletons and prosthetics are providing life-changing solutions for individuals with disabilities, enabling them to regain mobility and independence, even contending with issues such as paralysis.

Advances have led to the development of exoskeletons that can be controlled by the user’s thoughts, as well as prosthetics that can respond to the user’s muscle movements. It’s progress such as this that have allowed the likes of Mark Pollock, who became blind in 1998, before being left paralysed following a fall from a third story window 12 years later, to begin a road back to mobility, and initiate a new mission to cure paralysis in our lifetime. 

Today, the Mark Pollock Trust is contributing $1 billion to explore the intersection of humans, technology, and AI, with research that aims to develop new rehabilitation technologies and therapies that can help individuals regain mobility and independence across the globe.

While global exoskeleton revenues have been predicted to grow  from $392 million (£284 million) in 2020 to $6.8 billion in 2030, according to a study by ABI Research, the average cost of a full-body exoskeleton is currently around $45,000 (£36,166). While the capacities of exoskeleton solutions are certainly increasing accessibility, the price-tag today arguably isn’t (as it stands anyway). However, as economies scale and technology continues to advance, the prices are stated to come down. 

With that in mind, this is a key example of an instance where we should embrace technological advancement rather than skepticize, artificial intelligence and robotics are having a momentous impact on the lives and aspirations of many, and it’s inspiring to see. People with disabilities are already some of the world’s strongest, most courageous and determined, power them with the new, enhanced capabilities of robotics, and they’ll be even more unstoppable. 

By James Cummins & Gabriella Wieland