Building Better Bots: Can Next Gen Tech Make the World a Better Place?

Robin Christopherson MBE is a founding member of AbilityNetEvery day brings news of amazing new technologies such as Artificial Intelligence, robotics and automation. It's the age of ambient computing and everyone’s world is about to change. In the build up to an AbilityNet event Brighton Digital Festival, Robin Christopherson, Head of Digital Inclusion at UK tech charity AbilityNet, asks whether the next generation of tech will make life better for disabled people.

A version of this post first appeared on the blog of Equal Experts, who are sponsoring Building Better Bots in Brighton.

We’re seeing a revolution in the power and capabilities of mainstream technology. Hardware costs are falling, software is becoming more intelligent, our phones, cars and washing machines have more and more computing power. We’ve moved way beyond the mobile revolution into the age of ‘ambient computing'.

Every day brings new stories about AI, bots and robots - from BBC stories about faking Obama’s mouth movements to DeepMind beating humans at Go and Honda using IBM Watson for its F1 IOT systems these are stories that pop up across everyone's news feeds.

What's a bot?

In this fast moving space the term Bot is used in various ways but in this case I'm referring to those digital tools or services that use these new capabilities – a piece of software that draws on the power of AI and the internet of things to create new functionality. Bots are linked to this next generation of tech in the way that Apps are now synonymous with mobile.

C The Signs uses advanced algorithms to help early diagnosis of cancerChatbots are increasingly common on websites, whether offering pre-qualification for insurance products or simply serving as glorified FAQs. We've had Siri for several years but I’ve been living with Alexa and my Amazon Echo Dot for almost a year and by my definition the Alexa skills I podcast about are also Bots

Services such as C The Signs uses a form of AI to help early diagnosis of cancer, we have apps and bots that use image recognition to help people with disabilities and the tech giants are competing to sell us the Bots that will control our homes. 

The world isn’t short of Bots, or people talking about AI, but why is it of interest to AbilityNet?

Using tech to make the world a better place

AbilityNet is a charity that helps disabled people use tech to achieve their goals at home, at work and in education – any disability, any age, any digital technology.

We started life in the 1990s, helping people like Prof Stephen Hawking use cutting edge tech such as voice recognition. Twenty years ago we spent most of our time talking about highly specialist and often very expensive technologies, that had to be carefully customised. These days we very often recommend mainstream technologies, and they’re usually built into the phone or PC in front of you. 

There are an estimated 12 million disabled people in the UK and the great lesson is that one size doesn’t fit all – there isn’t one app for blind people, or a piece of software that solves every problem for people with dyslexia. Every person has different needs, depending on the obstacles they face and the tasks they’re trying to complete.

So what does this next generation of technology offer disabled people?

A new kind of interface

Well the best place for me to start is voice controlled interfaces.

I am completely blind and even though I have learned touch typing I use the power of my voice everyday, from dictating emails and reports to asking Siri or Alexa to help with daily tasks such as checking train timetables. The speed and accuracy of the voice interface has improved at an incredible pace in recent years, it no longer needs extensive training and is built into phones, TVs and 101 other interfaces.

Or how about autonomous cars. Like most people who are blind or have physical disabilities I can’t wait to tap my phone and jump into a car whenever I fancy - free to go wherever I please.

So much potential...

Before I get carried away we need to sound a warning signal about the way that tech is built and the barriers we are likely to face in achieving this dream.

I’ve been involved in digital tech for over 20 years and as each wave of tech comes along we see almost as many barriers as we do opportunities. Whether that is websites that are not accessible, apps that can’t be used by disabled people or services that can’t be used by people with particular impairments, I know from bitter personal experience that it doesn’t happen by accident.

The good news is that we work with clients such as Barclays Bank, who are embracing inclusive design and building accessibility into every digital product and service. They recognise the moral case for better design but they also embrace it for commercial reasons – what will you do if millions of people with dyslexia prefer someone else’s Bot because they've designed it better than yours?

It's about people, not technology

But the people building the future bots need to work to agreed standards – the next version of the globally agreed Web Consortium Accessibility Guidelines, known as WCAG, will encompass mobile standards. But will they be relevant in the age of AI? How will we test a Bot – in all its various forms - for accessibility?

Will the law keep pace with changes in technology?More widely still, there are ethical and legal issues relating to disability. When will it be legal for a blind person to travel unaccompanied in an autonomous car? What about someone with a learning disability? At what level of impairment will the solo traveller be kept off the roads? Hopefully (and ethically) the answer will be “Never”

Similarly, we’re all worried about Bots taking our jobs, but how many employers will level the recruitment playing field for people with disabilities, when at the same time they may be using Bots to outstrip even their able-bodied counterparts? What will the law say when you may be able to choose between an exceptionally brainy Bot and a human for your next hire?

Our event in Brighton Digital Festival, sponsored by Equal Experts, is a chance to explore these questions. We want to engage with the humans who are building bots as well as some of the people who can benefit from them.

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