The advancement in robotics and technology has turned dreams into reality, and what was once thought of as pure science fiction, is slowly becoming accessible.
Drones, intelligent cars, assembly line robots, are all part of our daily lives.
Renowned Australian Legal Academic Ron McCallum, who chairs the UN Committee for Rights of Persons with Disability, gave a presentation in the EU Parliament, on how technology has helped advance his life. He has been blind since birth and has hands-on experience with assistive technologies.
“When I went to school over 60 years ago, there were very few jobs for blind people as most jobs required clerical work. I learnt brail in order to advance my skills and help me find work. At that time in Australia there was no brail printing press.” He proceeded to use tape recorders to help him study law in the 1960s, and became a lawyer.
“The mid-1980s brought about a revolution, through computer based adaptive technology. Programmes reading out in synthetic speech what was written on screen were created. Later it was able to read scanned material. For the first time I was able to read material unaided.”
Most of the legal material he uses when practising law, or lecturing at the University of Sydney is now available through the internet, and a voice scanning programme is available on his smartphone.
He described this form of technology as one that drastically changed the lives for those with visual disabilities
“Computers have altered all of your lives, and computer adaptive technology has taken us from the darkness to the skies.
“There are four million blind children in the world who do not receive education, and just as many deaf children,” he said, arguing how such technology could help change their lives.
Assistive technologies aim to help people with disability to make their day-to-day lives easier, and one such area of research revolves around brain-computer interface, otherwise known as BCI.
This is a direct communications pathway between the brain and an external device. Neuroprosthetics are considered invasive, but can restore, for example, motor and sensing capacities. According to a paper published by Science and Technology Options Assessment (STOA) at the EU Parliament, these include limb replacements that can transmit the sense of touch, cochlear implants and bionic eyes.
A common type of brain implant procedure is called Deep Brain Stimulation and involves the implantation of a medical device called a brain pacemaker. These send electrical impulses through implanted electrodes, to specific parts of the brain for the treatment of movement and affective disorders such as Parkinson’s and dystonia. It helps withdebilitating symptoms such as tremor rigidity.
Non-invasive BCIs consist of a series of neuroimaging technologies that function as interfaces. These signals can be used to power bionic implants and restore movement and have recently been proved to be quite an efficient alternative to the invasive methods, without the risks involved with brain surgery.
In Europe, there are over 120,000 using cochlear implants and it is estimated that by 2020 the majority of children born with a hearing loss will have access to cochlear implants before the age of five. It is rarely used at present due to the high costs involved. Deep Brain Stimulation has been used in around 100,000 patients with Parkinson’s.
There are ethical implications with BCIs which cannot be ignored. The paper by STOA explains that BCIs could arrive at a point where they would not be limited to restoring ordinary capabilities, but could also see implants that can, for example, increase intellectual capacities and calculations. As for human identity, “can one claim to be the same person if his behaviour and thought process is modified by a brain implant?”
Autonomous Vehicles (which includes driverless cars) are fast becoming a reality, with testing already taking place.
“The EU is now focusing on the development of the infrastructure required to facilitate further deployment of this technology,” the report also explained, given that the technology has developed to such an extent.
“A Consortium together with €5.6 billion invested by the EU is looking at ways in which autonomous vehicle technology can be integrated with existing parking infrastructure to produce driverless parking systems, accessible from existing personal electronic devices such as smartphones.”
Analysts predict that there will be 1.8 billion automotive machine to machine connections by 2022. “The level of communication between automated vehicles should make it possible for them to navigate to destinations and interact with other vehicles and objects more efficiently than a human brain.
“The rise of autonomous vehicles is also likely to combine with continuing electrification of vehicles as telecommunications software and hardware is further integrated into vehicles. While annual global car sales may remain low, relative to conventional-fuel vehicles, electric vehicles are expected to account for more than five to 10 per cent of new car sales by 2025 alone.”
A rather interesting prospect is mentioned… What if you child drove you to work, dropped you off, then headed to school? If automatic vehicles become commonplace, will current laws and rules still apply, such as those relating to driving age or even a licence?
Another question relates to public transport: how would this technology affect public transportation if people would have personalised version of transport? Considering these cars would likely run on electricity, how would this affect exhaust fumes? Would these vehicles survive the treacherous pothole-riddled Maltese roads? All questions which will need to be answered.
To handle this new wave of technology, the European Parliament Legal Affairs committee has set up a working group to come up with proposals for legislation on how to make best use of robotics.
MEP Mady Delvaux says such legislation is needed for new European standardisation, while also considering liability, the protection of personal data and the prevention of hacking. She adds that, for example, industrial robots are covered by a law dealing with speed and some technical parameters, but not the machine’s intelligence.
There’s also the question of equal access, making sure everyone can afford them if they truly make life easier, she said. If a legal framework isn’t set up, Europe’s market will be flooded by robots coming from countries outside the EU that are more advanced in the area, such as the USA and Japan.
Robotics and artificial intelligence play a role in several aspects of life and affect the labour market as well as our lifestyles, MEP Therese Comodini Cachia told The Malta Independent on Sunday.
“Intelligent robots might be crucial for Europe’s future competitiveness. In the globalised economy, Europe retains good working conditions but cannot compete on labour costs. Robots added to an assembly line are expected to replace only a small part of a human worker’s responsibilities, thereby leaving workers free to perform other work more efficiently. This may lower costs and prices through increased productivity and increased sales growth. Digital technologies might boost job opportunities, but require careful management. Technological development has raised the pay of average jobs in the past but not everyone has benefited. Job polarisation has resulted from the technological boom. To eliminate the negative effect of the development of artificial intelligence on the labour market we need a balanced approach.”
Dr Comodini Cachia believes that the use of robotics and artificial intelligence gives rise to a number of legal questions that remain unanswered.
“Robots equipped with sensors gather a lot of data but how is consent obtained for the processing of this data, and how does the data protection legislation apply to this scenario? When an autonomous car (driverless car) is involved in an accident, who will bear liability for this accident? How will the insurance sector react to such liability? Health and safety regulations will need to be adapted to take collaborative robots into consideration. Technological and robotics development will also increase demands on the current infrastructure as well as demands for new infrastructures thereby reshaping the priorities and re-dimensioning the use of public funds.
“We cannot underestimate the benefits of robotics on everyday life. New technologies provide us with opportunities for learning, better social inclusion as well as higher standards of health. For example, new technologies provide people with disabilities easier access to information and better communication processes. At the same time, technology and robotics address the medical and health needs of an ageing population with an ever increasing use of robotics in medical interventions. Household products with artificial intelligence also provide assistance in the performance of everyday ordinary skills as well as facilitate independent living.”