VSJ – March 2005 – Work in Progress

Council member John Ellis, FIAP takes us on a flight of fancy that is, perhaps, not too fanciful and potentially worrying.
Regular readers will recall my set of articles on making Web sites more accessible to the disabled. I hope they will also remember my point that careful design can, at the same time, improve the experience for the able bodied. So I thought I would take a peek into the future and see how technology aimed at the disabled might improve – or even make a culture change in – the way we all use PCs and the Internet.
While many visually impaired people have various methods to access the world of computing, it is a lot harder for those with motor problems.
Take someone like Stephen Hawking, a scientist of great note who is known world-wide for his theories of space and time, yet there he is in his chair unable to use a keyboard and mouse. Thanks to the work of many people, he does have access to computer equipment via a paddle type device that allows him to click on word/letters that are scanned across the bottom of a screen.
Other people use similar devices. For example, a camera might be fitted above the screen to monitor eye movement, detecting a blink to select the appropriate action.
So how does this help us all in the future?
Well, experiments around the world have been done in implanting electrodes into disabled people’s brains to do the same thing as the switch selectors I referred to above. Certain thoughts trigger the switch! And a word or action is selected.
In fact, my use of the word ‘thought’ is perhaps misleading. We’re really measuring the activity of a particular area of the brain, as we would, for example, with a MRI brain scan. Such activity may lead to a ‘thought’ but we can’t guarantee a one-to-one correspondence. Which is what much of the research is about.
BUT if we can then select one individual thought, we can probably select several. This would give people the ability to pick several combinations of words or characters in one go or control a mouse (in their heads). After all, only 6 mouse actions are possible – up/down, left/right, left and right mouse click. That only requires 6 individual thoughts.
The reverse problem – transferring data to the subject rather than taking commands from him or her – is also being tackled at the research level. For instance, the Dobelle Artificial Vision System has been used experimentally in the field for over two years now. See www.seeingwithsound.com/etumble.htm for an interview with a user.
Now, if we can link a blind person to the sighted world via a camera and a brain implant, it doesn’t matter where the camera signals are coming from. They could just as well be from the camera on somebody else’s 3G phone. Or direct from a Web site. We are, after all, looking a little into the future, so everyone will have broadband Internet access from their cell phones won’t they? Which means not just that someone with this technology has access to the network but that they become PART OF the network. WOW!
Now we enter an area of unintended consequences. We have, with excellent motives, experimented on people. They need the access and we have to have test subjects. But now we have the technology to plug anyone into the system. It will probably require surgery but some people will want it, at any cost. Military and intelligence people would be prime users but other data junkies would also want access.
This then leads to a whole set of ethical and moral questions. That of unnecessary surgery I shall leave to others. Let’s think instead of the IT implications. All the current Internet woes – spamming, URL spoofing, pop-ups, trojans and viruses – apply, not to the user’s computer, but to the user him (or her) self. Would such malign activity be assault in the legal sense? I suggest it should be. It is a type of assault that even now we are all suffering, whether being redirected to unsuitable sites, or to a site that hijacks your browser so that every time you go to a new page you are automatically routed to one of the hijacker’s sites.
This type of assault is becoming more common now, so the future does not look bright unless we grow up or effective legislation is brought in and enforced world wide. Given the current squabbling between the US and the EU – and even between EU members – over software patents, the idea that such legislation could be enacted, let alone enforced, seems fanciful.
More worryingly still, the term ‘virus’ might revert to its original meaning. Natural viruses that attack the brain are often fatal. Perhaps an electronic equivalent would be too. So would that be murder and how easy would it be to prosecute an offender?
What about the enforcement of existing Internet legislation? Your computer will be confiscated if it stores certain kinds of data, such as pornographic child images. Of course, a prosecution can still follow such a transgression but, if ‘the computer’ is actually your brain, what precisely would ‘confiscation’ mean? The terms ‘brainwashing’ and ‘thought police’ spring inexorably to mind.
So here we are. Scientists are working on ways to improve the lot of those people who need to have access to the world of computing. We probably have most of the technology already and just need to get it to work.
The question is, of course, will we be capable of using it safely, when we cannot even use it now without corrupting it?

You can contact John at john.ellis@wellis-technology.co.uk

[Interesting project or development? Let us know at eo@iap.org.uk!]

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