A truly human interface

Fix the technology problems of the infirm and disabled and you will inevitably design better technology for everyone else, argues expatriate technologist Neil Scott.

Fix the technology problems of the infirm and disabled and you will inevitably design better technology for everyone else, argues expatriate technologist Neil Scott.

Scott, a New Zealander who has established a reputation in the US as an original thinker, is best known for his work on technology tools for disabled people. After working at the University of California at Northridge and at Stanford, he now runs the Archimedes Project, an enterprise dedicated to the evolution of such technology. This centre has just been relocated from Stanford to Hawaii, apparently to get it out of the commercial atmosphere of mainland US.

Yet the apparently specialist pursuit of disability-oriented technology has broader application. It had better have, Scott says, or it will be difficult to get off the ground – the target market not exactly having a lot of money to excite marketers and venture capitalists.

Part of Scott’s strategy is to bring elderly people into the equation.

“The aging population represents a huge market,” he says. They have similar sensory, motor or cognitive problems to those experienced by younger disabled people, and will benefit from assistive technology such as digital magnification of documents and voice synthesis and voice recognition. And many of them are comparatively well off.

“If we concentrate on the rich retiring people who want to have lots of neat stuff”, they will act as a seed market on whom to try new technologies, Scott says. Once the technologies mature and research expenditure is amortised, they will become cheap enough to be taken up by the hundreds and thousands of people with the need but not as much money.

At the early stage it’s not just old people who will see benefit in, and pay for, technology. Their families, faced with the task of caring for them, will welcome a little technological assistance – from the large-print or voice-assisted email connection that will allow grandma to keep in touch via an alarm and other electronic assistance that will make her more self-sufficient (Scott suggests storage aids for failing memory) and ease the family’s problems.

But when it comes to interfacing with computer technology, those conventionally seen as “disabled” are not the only ones at a disadvantage. We are all “disabled” by the rigid way we are called on to communicate with technology, Scott says.

Sure, voice recognition is improving in effectiveness, but even if we can speak to the machine we are still tied to a script-like mode of instruction -- a clumsy sequence of commands “open”, “select” and so on. People who are under stress or cognitively disabled can’t follow scripts easily.

“We’ve got to make devices behave more like people. The traditional way of disentangling the meaning of sentences uses conventional linguistics, software agents and some very complex stuff.” This has to cope with all sorts of different ways of referring to a standard action like turning on the TV -- “TV on”, “turn on the telly”or “fire up Big Bertha”.

The Archimedes Centre has a patent application filed for a natural interaction processor. It is designed to handle such synonyms, to eliminate the “rubbish” words in a command such as “jeez it’s cold in here; turn that damn fan off”, and to handle descriptive words in the situation where, for example, there may be more than one TV.

In bringing together organizations from various disciplines to work on such projects New Zealand may be a particularly good source, Scott says. Where a US company may baulk at involvement with a small potential market that will earn them only $1 million a year, a Kiwi company will be more willing to take up the opportunity.

The intellectual-property aspects of collaboration are challenging, he acknowledges, and the Archimedes project has retained specialist lawyers to come up with appropriate methods whereby each team involved will share the benefits.

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