Historically, the 18th century was the industrial age and the 19th century was the technology and information era. Our society was built on manufacturing in the 18th century. The 19th century brought exciting developments from the automobile to the Internet. Just imagine what it is like for someone who was born 80 plus years ago and the changes they have witnessed. It is hard to believe that many senior citizens were born when the horse and buggy was still the main mode of transportation. Today, more options for travel exist, such as boats, hybrid cars, airplanes, and roller-blades.
2005—we are at the beginning of a new millennium and a new age. Futurists are calling it the biomedical and biotechnical age. Technology has inundated the medical field. The two fields are merging together and changing the way we think about medicine and the way we receive treatment. Things such as medicine pumps, robotics, and new materials in transplants are revolutionizing society.
When thinking of the future, there are four areas that impact the rehabilitation of persons with disabilities: computers, electronic aids of daily living, biotechnology/biomedicine and robotics. No longer is cure the priority for the treatment of an illness, injury or condition but rather emphasis is placed on independence where assistive technology becomes crucial in the process.
Voice recognition has been around since the 1940s. It is not a new technology, but rather one that is now becoming usable. Dragon Naturally Speaking is a premier product for computer access. The preferred version’s vocabulary includes 250,000 words with the ability to add additional words and phrases. Built-in commands for common procedures such as saving and printing, make it a hands-free process in operating a PC computer. Equivalent programs are being created for the Macintosh. To implement this technology, a powerful computer with ample RAM and speed is necessary. Voice recognition is not only for computers. Currently, the trend is to embed the capability into microprocessors. This means practically any electrical equipment or appliance could potentially become voice-activated. Cell phones have jumped on the bandwagon as they provide safety to the user. Other products such as your microwave, door locking mechanism and thermostat may one day be trained to your voice.
For persons with blindness, vision loss or a reading disability, OCR with voice output offers many new technological capabilities. OCR is Optical Character Recognition. This means the user is able to scan printed information into a computer. The information is translated into text with accuracy close to 100%. Dedicated programs will scan and then start reading the information, whereas individualized scanning software, such as OmniPage, converts information only. Individualized scanning programs, therefore, will need an additional screen reader or voice output to read out loud. It allows quick access to books, as information does not need to be read out loud by a human voice into a tape recorder. The academic and work world requires such abilities as our society relies on information.
Computer technology for the individual with minimal movement has exploded. Eye gaze will be the next great breakthrough. There are a few programs available, but they are not user-friendly or reliable yet because the transfer speeds on the computer are not fast enough. With FireWire and Bluetooth, the reaction time from eye movement to translation into mouse movement is finally becoming instantaneous. Head pointing has been around for a longer period of time and will soon take advantage of the same technology.
Electronic Aids of Daily Living
Bill Gates’ visionary home is slowly becoming a reality for anyone desiring it. The cost of home automation and electrical aids of daily living significantly have fallen. It is feasible to think that in 10 years the residents of a house will wear a bracelet with their personal preferences. When the person walks into a room, the temperature and lights change to the best setting for them. The home automation may also customize the television channel choices and turn on the music automatically. The individual will just talk rather than using a remote or switch when changes are needed to the initial setup. There still will be scanning options for those who cannot speak clearly. Communication devices have started placing home automation options into the infrared transmitter. Thought control may be available as an access method. Through biofeedback or an electrode planted on the brain, controlling appliances is accomplished.
Doctors are changing treatment protocols for their patients daily. Technology and medicine are merging together. The use of implantable medication pumps is one example where medicine is directly delivered into the spinal cord or bloodstream. Persons with diabetes eventually will have a continuous glucose monitor where the pump would adjust to high and low blood sugar automatically. Baclofen pumps will increase functional capabilities for persons with severe spasticity or tremors. Pain will be controlled through both internal and external pump systems. The patient may receive a continuous dosage of narcotics along with the ability to increase the dosage with severe pain. Chemotherapy will no longer require visits to the doctor after the pump is implanted with the treatment.
Finally, robotics is a branch of engineering that involves the conception, design, manufacture, and operation of robots and devices. This field overlaps with electronics, computer science, artificial intelligence, mechatronics, nano-technology, and bioengineering.
Robotics will allow for electrical transplants enabling the ability to see, hear, move, feel and smell. Many new developments are on the horizon. A robotic eye will have a miniscule camera implanted near the optical nerve to project images to the brain. A bionic spine will stop the need for immobility due to fusion. A swivel disk with new materials will allow doctors to replace damaged vertebrae. Robotic arms will be attached to the muscle mass of persons with spinal cord injuries providing hand movement through other muscles. Prosthesis devices will be available for the amputee allowing for better dexterity and movement than can be seen on some able-bodied individuals who have all their arms and legs.
It is a new era. The daily newspaper is filled with new possibilities that will soon be a reality for all. Technology is the future!