Where do you stand?

In April, Facebook held their annual developer conference where they spoke about their development of a technology that will allow a human brain to control a computer in order to type. The presentation was geared toward helping people with disabilities who can’t speak under their own power. The news of such technology is probably not new to you, whether it be something from science fiction or something you’ve seen actual stories on. I have been giving speeches to college classes on communication devices for a number of years now and for the past three years, I will usually get one person asking me what I think about having a computer know what I want to say just by me thinking it. So the awareness of this technology is nothing new but when Facebook talks and has a presentation on it, people tend to take notice.

I’m not here to talk about its validity or how soon it might become available to the everyday person or even to the disability community, you can read and believe whatever you want on those predictions. I want to discuss the cautionary aspect of it. I’m not going to tell you that it’s all a governmental ploy to read or control everyone’s mind. However, there is a certain aspect that needs contemplated which is definitely going to sound like a conspiracy but I encourage you to read this with an open mind.

Every time I have been asked about this technology, I’ve thought it would work in the sense that whatever I think would get typed into the computer immediately. I think even the most optimistic person would agree that having it work in that manner would be absolutely horrible. Facebook has an interesting method to their system. Instead of text going from your mind directly to the computer, they have the idea of a mouse cursor being moved by the mind. An individual would be looking at a computer/tablet that has an on-screen keyboard on it and the person would need to think “move to H, move to I” in order to type the word “hi”. Obviously the brain activity to do something like that is voluntary so accidentally saying “I can’t stand this person”, which might be the spontaneous thought that comes to mind when seeing someone, is not going to happen. This method actually has me intrigued in getting this technology going and applicable.

However there is still cause for caution with such technology which can be pretty well summed up with the quote, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”. I truly believe this technology is being developed with some of the best intentions. The problem is going to come after this technology is implemented in everyday life, when we realize that having to think about every single keystroke is just too much work and convince ourselves that we need something better. That is going to lead to more streamlined processing from the brain directly to text. I vaguely remember when my family got a faster modem (56.6K phone modem) when I was a kid and a web page took about ten seconds to load instead of fifteen seconds and it was thought that there was no way it could ever be faster than that. Today, if a page takes five seconds to load, we are ready to throw the computer out the window.

A more directly related example of how we are always wanting to improve quality of life through technology would be the new method in which I use my communication device. I had used it by scanning ever since I was five years old and I was very fast in regards to the scan rate. If you’ve never seen anyone scan on a communication device, imagine each letter in the alphabet being presented to you one at a time and when the correct letter came up, you would press a button. Now imagine spelling at a simple word like “my”, you would have to wait until the “m” came up, hit the button, then wait again for the “y” to come up and hit the button. This is a rough representation of scanning on a communication device, in reality it’s a little more efficient but this gives you the idea. Within the past year or two though, I have started using eye gazing/tracking technology from the Prentke Romich Company where I can simply look at the key/letter I want to press, press the button with my knee and it activates the desired key. It doesn’t take a lot of knowledge to know that this method is far more efficient and faster. While scanning, I could hit a key every two or three seconds. Now with eye gaze, I’m able to hit a key in well under a second. This increased speed has opened doors in a number of different areas of my life, everything from talking to friends to the amount work I am able to get done in a given day. So I can definitely vouch for the necessity to use technology to improve quality of life. I don’t know what I would do if I had to go back to scanning.

Bottom line, we are always wanting to improve quality of life, make things easier and faster. Generally speaking, this is not a bad thing. However, we tend to rush into something believing it is going to be this fantastic, perfect solution but it ends up being a mediocre product that only really works under prime conditions. I’m thinking of recently I had my communication device ask Alexa to play today’s top hits and it responded “Should I add a station for thug music to your Pandora account?” This really happened!

This is where I want to make you think for yourself, I’m not trying to convince anybody one way or another but instead encourage you to get a firm grasp on principals before this technology is available. When it does become a viable technology/product, it is going to seem like you are insane if you don’t jump on board right away. It will be presented as the most amazing thing ever and if you don’t get it, you’re a crazy conspiracy theorist. Or, inevitably as the technology advances, you will be at a disadvantage or even a burden to those who do choose to employ such technology. Take as probably the simplest example, note taking during a meeting. People who have this technology can perceivably take notes mentally instead of writing/typing them by hand. So Bob is in a meeting with nine people with the mental note taking ability. Bob has elected not to utilize this new technology and has to type out notes for later recollection. Everybody else has already sent those notes to their iPad just by thinking about it but not Bob. So the meeting has to be halted to let slow Bob catch up or Bob has to go without those notes, putting Bob at a disadvantage or a burden.

When it comes to people with disabilities, we are already by definition at disadvantages in certain areas of life. For myself and a number of people I know who have physical disabilities, it’s just about impossible to not feel like a burden at times. It is this group of people that I am personally most concerned about when it comes to this type of technology because there will be immense pressure to employ it. Most likely, this pressure is not going to come from external forces but they will be internal battles attacking on two major fronts. The burden front and the efficiency front.

The burden aspect is something that, in my experience, is the strongest influencing force that would make me do just about anything. As somebody who requires assistance for just about all daily tasks, it has been impossible for me to not think about this factor. Even though I truly believe the people who assist me don’t think it is a burden, there is always a nagging feeling that tells me it is. Due to this, I am going to be pressured internally to do what I can to relieve the burden I impose on people. Again, no doubt most people don’t view assisting me as a burden, it is just something I keep in mind. I would also like to add that this feeling is not always a bad thing, feeling like a burden has lead me to discover and develop ways to help myself.

Interestingly, the efficiency factor gives me the same gut feeling. Take my example of how much faster I can get work done now that I’m using eye gaze to type. I can get more work done which means I have more employment possibilities, more employment possibilities then means I can be more self-sufficient, which then leads to happiness in the area of self-worth. So if I can use this technology that is going to make me happier, make me less of a burden to others, how do I not employ it even if it goes against whatever beliefs I have? I think this is the question I set out in this article hoping to get you to contemplate. How does one overcome the overwhelming reasons to do something when there are really only a fraction of reasons not to? I know I’m still battling this with myself and hope I can make the correct decision when those times come.

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