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How AI Enables the Disabled

Either the robots are coming to send us all to the unemployment line of a mechanized dystopian future, or their benevolent introduction...

4 Minutes Read

Either the robots are coming to send us all to the unemployment line of a mechanized dystopian future, or their benevolent introduction will bring about new, BETTER jobs that we have yet to even dream of. This false binary gets all the press and riles up the zeitgeist but most of us will see something closer to the middle. According to “What to Do When the Machines Do Everything” about 75% of current jobs will not only stick around, but be enhanced by artificial intelligence. Such a rising tide benefits us all, but has considerable positive implications for 56 million people in America that identify with a disability of some sort. While most use cases for AI center around improving efficiencies or freeing us up from daily drudgery, some innovators have turned their attention to services and systems that help enable the disabled to enjoy more active lives.

The car-centric culture brought about by urban sprawl make it all but impossible to get around for work or leisure in my hometown without a personal car. My disabled neighbors don’t often have that luxury, but can thankfully access paratransit options that provide more accessible transportation to work or other essential destinations. Unfortunately, this option is not available to many citizens outside of urban regions as budget cuts all but eliminate service to the far-flung exurbs and rural areas. Local Motors has partnered with IBM’s Watson division to tackle this problem. Their solution? Olli, the autonomous shuttle accessible to all citizens.

Olli has been built from the ground up to serve the disabled population with a wheelchair ramp, sign-language processing sensors, an information overlays to remind passengers with memory loss. The design team consulted with disabled people for their input on a service that fits their needs. Bret Greenstein, VP of Watson IoT captured that customer-centric ethos perfectly in saying "People shouldn't have to learn how to talk to machines."

This sentiment opens the door for roles like the Man-Machine Teaming Manager from the 21 Jobs of the Future. While the end user shouldn’t have to put much thought into machine interactions, the Teaming Manager will ensure their engagement is just as natural as it would be with a human carrying out the same service. Ceding control to robots for the transportation of vulnerable populations will not be without its detractors. Companies will need their Teaming Managers to think through the social, political, and economic ramifications of such a transition and ensure that none of the consequences endanger riders or hinder any of their previous mobility efforts.

Pilot programs for Olli launch later this year in select cities. Even prior to the official launch, the story of Olli highlights key lessons for leaders with an eye to the future:

  • Design for fringe cases, no matter your audience. Olli began as a run of the mill service. The design team opted to take a leadership position in providing accessible services for all. In providing for an audience with heightened needs, they are better able to craft their product for other users.
  • Trust is essential. Olli passengers may not have the ability to hop off the shuttle if they miss their stop or visually recognize landmarks as their destination draws near. Olli designers kept this in mind
  • Draw on the expertise of your end users. Local Motors recruited designers that had disabilities themselves. This ensured that the needs of the intended audience would be taken seriously and considered at all levels of product design.

Introducing AI and machines that do everything does not represent a zero-sum game for the workforce. The technology can be used to better provide for our disabled and/or aging populations. With increased comfort and accommodations from AI, these groups can re-enter the workforce and contribute to the collective intellectual capital we call upon to solve the most pressing problems of our local and global communities.


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