May 212023

I’ve been thinking a lot about the rise of generative AI and how it might eventually improve the lives of people with disabilities, including my own. In the short term, it has the potential to become a more versatile form of assistive technology that is much more adept at anticipating its user’s needs. Even as I’m writing this post, my Edge browser is offering word suggestions that are on-point more often than not. And Google’s new GameFace software uses machine learning to allow users to control a mouse and play games with facial gestures. I haven’t tried it yet, but here’s a video profiling Lance, a gamer with muscular dystrophy who served as an inspiration for the development of GameFace:

But what else could AI do for people with disabilities as it becomes smarter and more sophisticated? Could it live on a phone belonging to someone with a cognitive disability and guide them through everyday tasks like grocery shopping or using public transportation? Could it act as a portable sign language interpreter for someone who is deaf? When I saw the movie Her years ago, I became enamored with the idea of a digital assistant companion who would be indistinguishable from an actual human. I’m still skeptical that such technology will exist in my lifetime, but I’m a little less certain than I was a few months ago.

I may be naive about the promise of AI considering that so many people who are much smarter than me are warning that it could lead to humanity’s demise. And I need to acknowledge my own biases about technology and its potential to make life better; biases that are nevertheless informed by my lived experience. Had I been born even fifty years earlier, my life would have been shorter and harsher. Technology, in all its forms, has made so much possible for those of us with disabilities and that fact gives me hope that this new, barely comprehensible tech can be wielded not as an instrument of destruction, but rather as a tool for shaping a more equitable and accessible world.

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