Can assistive technology save computing?

Summary:Last year just 8,000 people graduated with computing majors, nationwide, the lowest figure in years. Can assistive technology turn that around?

Univeristy of Buffalo assistive technology learning projectComputing is becoming an old man's game. (Picture from the University of Buffalo. Go Bulls.)

Last year just 8,000 people graduated with computing majors, nationwide, the lowest figure in years.

Can assistive technology turn that around? Michael Buckley at the University of Buffalo thinks so.  

With just $60,000 in Microsoft grants (a pittance to Mr. Softee) he is inspiring a generation of new geeks to do Socially Relevant Computing.

He's built an Assistive Technology Laboratory, but he admits many of the best ideas come from visits to the Center for Handicapped Children's Learning Center in nearby Williamsville.

There his students meet vibrant, alive, but severely challenged kids who inspire them to great projects, such as:

  • DISCO, which uses light, sound, and tactile stimulation to create a learning environment with positive feedback for the severely disabled.
  • Firefighter Monitoring gear to keep track of a first responder's vital signs while they are in danger.
  • Remotely-controlled wheelchairs, controlled by caregivers, for people who can't even use a joystick.
  • BUTTON MAKER, a computing interface for the severely disabled aimed at enabling learning.
  •  VAPP, a videoconferencing system for the severely disabled aimed at distance learning.
  • People Tracker, a Zigbee network which does passive monitoring of people in nursing homes to make sure they stay safe.
  • Nexus, a home controller with a visual programming language to help disabled people control their environment.

The work has also inspired Rice professor Devika Subramanian, who produced a paper on modeling human behavior on visualmotor tasks. Even the simplest adaptive technology needs sound theory behind it.

Buckley has his own paper to offer, on the benefits of using socially-relevant projects in computer science and engineering education. He has also won two teaching awards at UB.

He's on to something in two ways.

First, we need more focus on assistive technology, and need to stop assuming everyone must be completely abled to be part of the world we're building.

Second, the past focus on money as the sole aim of computing doesn't work when the money flows out. We need something more to keep American computing vibrant.

Topics: Hardware


Dana Blankenhorn has been a business journalist since 1978, and has covered technology since 1982. He launched the Interactive Age Daily, the first daily coverage of the Internet to launch with a magazine, in September 1994.

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