Technology Update! Fixed, Ten Years Later

By Abigail, Phase I Scholar
A poster of the documentary Fixed.

As part of the Phase One curriculum, DO-IT Scholars watch the 2013 documentary Fixed, a documentary discussing the ethics and future of technology accommodating or “fixing” disabled people. Fixed contains many themes and ideas still relevant to today’s world, but it is a touch out-of-date. Much innovation has occurred over the past decade, and technologies that might have once seemed distant are now coming near.

Fixed contained a segment interviewing people on the street about the sorts of advanced capabilities they would want for themselves. In that vein, I asked fellow do-it scholars on technologies they’d like to see in the future or are interested in.

Delivery Drones

The practicalities and convenience of delivery drones is inarguable, however the roll out of delivery drone technologies can be tough- prone to issues or tied up in miles of red tape. Regulations mean it can take a while for companies to get approval for drone deliveries outside of line of sight on an operator, and some difficulties arise in urban environments. Only five companies have gotten an FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) rule 135 exemption (allowed to be out of sight and over people) as of this May, according to Forbes. These issues aren’t insurmountable – federal regulations can be met, and one solution to the urban problem, utilized by the Chinese company Meituan, is to drop off packages at kiosks instead of homes. In the past, much of the applications of delivery drones has to do with the medical side of deliveries, like carrying medicine and blood to hospitals. That is shifting. For a fun and local example, Pagliacci Pizza plans to roll out drone-based pizza delivery for smaller order sizes. Although drone delivery is yet to be commonplace, the technology is getting there, and a future with convenient drone delivery may be in sight.

Flying Cars

This technology is further out than the others, and less applicable to disabilities, but the potential is still interesting to explore. The research and development of flying cars has a surprisingly long history, kicking off with the Curtiss Airplane in 1917 (pictured below, left). It wasn’t much of a success, as might be clearly evident by the lack of flying cars on our roads. I’ll spare you a long explanation of the intervening aerospace history and skip ahead to the present with one major company. Alef Aeronautics, one of several modern companies looking to make the flying car dream reality, is developing their “Model A” (also pictured, right). It has a very recent FAA approval, and they hope to get it on our roads by 2025 (as of December last year) for $300,000. For reference, you can apparently purchase or build amateur recreational planes for far cheaper, although you shouldn’t expect first class. Over a century after the Curtiss Airplane, the sci-fi future dreamt by many has been…lamer than expected, but progress is still being made and perhaps even rather soon we may have flying cars on the road. Of course, they said that about self-driving cars, and look at where we are now.

Self-Driving Cars

For people who cannot drive, self-driving cars could be a lifesaver. For firefighters, they are just a nuisance. In locations with limited self-driving cars can get in the way of emergency response, although they are more of an annoyance than a real danger for the most part so far – with a few notable exceptions, such as the death of Elaine Hertzberg, a bicyclist, in 2020. That car had a safety driver as passenger, but she wasn’t paying attention and the car wasn’t capable of reacting fast enough to the pedestrian. Less seriously, self-driving cars can also clog up traffic as they struggle to manage more complicated situations. Despite these setbacks and poor public press, many taxi companies, such as Waymo and Cruise, are expanding. Very recently efforts in San Francisco to expand the Waymo driverless taxi service to be a 24/7 service has generated controversy.  Perhaps someday driverless cars will be ubiquitous, but there’s still many limitations to be worked out.

Mind Reading

Personally, I have no clue why people wish they could read minds. That feels like a pretty steep invasion of privacy to do so casually, and I’d really rather not know what people are thinking about.   Still, fair is fair, and this topic was a request. I’ll look at a few related ideas.

Mind to Text: Guess what? Chat-GPT is apparently good for more than just cheating on schoolwork… or whatever else people do with it. AI Technology has been recently used to create a less invasive method of “reading minds” – decoding data from MRI scans to construct full sentences to a reasonable degree of accuracy. The days of requiring implants or electrodes to record people’s internal thoughts are soon to be over, although the technology has some limitations. It’s certainly not the era of dystopian monitoring- the technology is not portable, requiring huge machines to work. It needs to be taught to adapt to a specific person’s brain to be accurate, a process that takes a long time. Still, through the power of AI, this technology has made recent bounds and may provide a useful way to provide speech to people who cannot talk in the future.

Mind to Computer: This technology was discussed in Fixed, I believe, all the way back in 2010. More recently, the start-up Synchron hope to achieve a less invasive interface that doesn’t require brain surgery- by connecting the interface through blood vessels rather than directly through the brain like companies such as Neuralink. This sort of procedure is considered much less risky than procedures that involve messing with the brain, so much so that they received FDA testing approval on humans before the highly publicized and well-funded Neuralink (owned by Elon Musk). Because the surgery isn’t brain or skull surgery, it can use less specialized doctors and be more accessible to a wider group of people. The neurotech is showing promise – pictured below is a tweet by a patient (“phil”) with ALS who used the implant to control a computer. Brain-Computer interfacing through vein implants seems strange, but it could make the technology safer and more available than in previous years.

Fixed did a stunning job of remaining relevant, but I doubt it could have predicted the kinds of advances made in the past 10 years. What kind of technologies would you like to see?