A man, once visually impaired, walks down a sunny street and spots the ultraviolet and infrared rays searing the air. A woman with previous hearing difficulties can not only hear within the human hearing range, but can also identify sounds from frequencies in animal hearing ranges. A war veteran, who lost his leg in combat, tests his bionic leg as he trains for his next field posting. This is the world envisioned for the future, where technology eliminates barriers for people with disabilities.
Today, technology can aid people with disabilities to conduct routine chores and interactions that they were formerly unable to accomplish. However, the future of assistive technology is peppered with path-breaking bionics, organ regeneration, DNA manipulation, and tissue engineering. For instance, hearing aids have evolved from large external electric hearing aids, to cochlear implants embedded with speech processors and transmitters. Researchers are also experimenting with re-engineering the human eye using induced pluripotent stem cells and bio-reactors, so that visually challenged persons can differentiate between light and dark.
The manner in which assistive technology is progressing is evident. From just improving capabilities, it is moving into realms where it can eliminate the problem altogether and even enhance that capability beyond expectation. A striking example of technical prowess in this sphere is the bionic limb. The bionic limb uses three interfaces for smooth functioning—mechanical, dynamic, and electrical. A bionic hand that operates like a biological hand and allows the wearer to sense touch is one such example. Embedded sensors measure touch and transform the signal into impulses for sensory nerve endings in the body, thereby making a person feel using bionics. This makes the bionic hand more than just assistive, as it facilitates regular functionality.
Similarly, exoskeleton suits have been developed to assist with paralysis. The exoskeleton suit uses sensors implanted in a person’s skin to detect neuron impulses for movement, and move the corresponding motors in the arms or legs in response. This gives a person impaired by paralysis considerable manoeuvrability.
In another development, by manipulating DNA using stem cell technology and bioreactors, researchers have started to grow bladders and kidneys to relinquish the use of equipment like dialysis machines and pouches, and eliminate the debilitating effects that certain conditions can bring about. The term ‘bio ware’ is being used frequently to describe this new trend in technology, where tissue engineering and bionics are being used to grow replacements for bones, cartilage, blood vessels and organs.
While present technologies like ‘connected wheelchairs’—that display information from the user, keep track of their vital statistics and ease their way of life—and specially designed 3D printed products are doing a great job in empowering people with various types of challenges, the real future of assistive technology potentially relies on the total eradication of disabilities.
How else can assistive technology enhance human capability? Please share your comments in the section below.