Of passion and pet projects. (Philosophy - how it ought to be) Peter McWilliams.
We all have our weak spots, our passions, our pet projects. For some, it's Mom and apple pie. For others, it's Haagen Dazs. For still others it's jogging.
I'll tell you my preoccupation: computers for the disabled. I am not rational about this subject. I am too excited. I believe too deeply. Stand clear, brothers and sisters, for I am about to testify!
Consider the following: For the deaf, it is as though the telephone has just been invented. For the first time they can call anyone who has a computer and just chat. For the blind, computers allow intricate word processing without the assistance of a sighted person. For paraplegics, quadriplegics, people with cerebral plasy, muscular dystrophy, and all the other disabilities and diseases that effect motor control, personal computers can make the difference--depending upon the degree of disability--between productivity and nonproductivity, between creating and noncreation, between communicating and no communication at all. For the emotionally and mentally disabled, computers offer friendly, nonjudgmental, infinitely patient educators, taking those with learning disabilities as far as they want to go as fast as they want to go there.
But you already know all this. There has been article after article on how wonderful computers are for people with disabilities. It is an accepted fact of computing these days, like the fact that word processing is better than typing, or Pac-Man is more fun than Chutes and Ladders. What Can You Do?
What you might not have realized is the role that you can play in making computers available and useful to the disable community. If you know how to operate a computer, you can change a disabled person's life. It doesn't take much time or much effort, and the rewards are disproportionately high. (Oh my goodness, I sound just like those public service announcements they show on television late at night when they run out of commercials.)
All you need do is something simple, like spending an hour or two a week showing disable people how to run the program you know best. Or choose one disabled person who is planning to buy a computer and help in the selection, purchase, set-up, and training. Or donate that extra computer (do you have a Vic-20 or a Timex/Sinclair gathering dust?) to a disabled center. Or, well, be creative. This is Creative Computing, isn't it?
If you are one of those people who have gotten rich from computers (if you are debating the purchase of your fourth Porsche or staging a major rock concert in the Mojave Desert, I'm talking to you) you could be canonized by donating a few million dollars worth of computers to disabled people. It is also tax deductible, if you work it right.
But I warn you, all of this is addictive. When you see that a computer can fundamentally change the life of a disabled person, it will be hard to rest until every disabled person has one. The Reverse Nebel Theory
Let me tell you about two of these people, just so you'll know what you are getting into.
I spent most of this evening talking with an aerospace engineer for Rockwell International. He worked seven years on the space shuttle program and was launch director of the first five flights. He designed 43 of the 47 control panels in the cockput. ("When you push a button in a weightless environment," he asks, "How do you know if the button will be pushed in, or if you will be pushed away?" I am going to sell that to the local Zen Center for their book of Space Age Koans.) He has won four Astronaut's Awards (the coveted "Silver Snoopy") for professional excellence.
His name is Gerry Schwartz. Although his list of NASA and other aeronautic achievements goes beyond impressive and on to staggering, we spent very little time discussing manned flight.
What we talked about was our mutual passion: computers for the disabled. The admonition to beat swords into ploughshares is being faithfully followed by Gerry. "They are working on a bomber that will fly at nine Gs and deliver a nuclear missile with zero inaccuracy by voice command alone."
It seems that at nine Gs, a pilot can move very little but his mouth, so the mouth becomes the tool for control. Gerry is applying the bomber voice technology to people here on earth who are as immobilized as a pilot flying at nine Gs.
Using the technology of war for peace, Gerry Schwartz calls the Reverse Nobel theory. Alfred Nobel, you will remember, took the millions be made from the invention of dynamite and distributed prizes for peace. Not necessarily the best way to go about it, as history since the advent of dynamite will attest. Better, perhaps, to invent tools of peace for neither fortune nor recognition than to buy a place in history with the profits of war.
"I am trying to make my life help-oriented," Gerry says in his characteristically straightforward style. To that end he founded the HOPE Center (Hands Off Program Experience) in Huntington Beach, CA. Voice-Controlled Word Processing
Gerry can make any computer do almost anything with voice commands alone. The number of words it can reconize is limited only by the available RAM. A 64K computer can recognize about eighty words. Word processing, for example, can be done with the basic commands (Open File, Delete Word), a primitive vocabulary (it, and, the, and so on), and the alphabet. Most words are spelled out one letter at a time, just as on a keyboard. The same could apply to accounting programs, spreadsheet programs, and to the writing of programs themselves.
There are several voice recognition devices on the market. Gerry Schwartz's gift is one of software and matching the computer to the user. He has three goals when helping a disabled person select a computer, and all three must be met for Gerry to consider the job well done.
First, the machine must be useable at once. (The computer will grow more useful as time goes on, but it should be able to do something right away.) Second, the purchase of it shouldn't destory the disable person's budget. Third, the system must have room for growth.
One of the must interesting uses is a computer program he wrote for a young man with cerebral palsy. At first, the computer accepted a broad range of pronunciations for the command words, but as the weeks went by, the acceptable range was narrowed, and, consequently, the young man's speech improved considerably.
When speech is not possible, Gerry arranges for the disabled person to communicate with the computer using Morse code. "Morse code seems to be the standard for certain disabled applications," I said.
"Yes," Gerry, "But is it right? Is it the best, the most useful? It is what we tell the disabled to use, but I hope they will use it for a few months and come back and say, 'You idiot: why did you stick us with Morse code when this or that would work so much better?"
Gerry seems to look forward to that day when the disabled people he works with will tell him not only what they need but how to best fulfill the need. "What's right for them is what's right.'"
And it is that attitude--the joy of being wrong if a better answer can be found--that is known, I suppose, as the right stuff. More Spin-Offs from Space
Walt Woltosz began his work with computers and the disabled in 1980 when his mother-in-law was diagnosed as having amyotrophic lateral sclerosis--ALS, or Lou Gehrig's Disease. She unfortunately died before the software and input devices could be fully developed, but the event had a profound effect on Walt's life, and the work continued.
Walt left his job as an aerospace engineer for United Technologies Corporation and started Words+, Inc. in Sunnyvale, CA.
Walt Woltosz developed a computer/software package called the Words+ Living Center. This sounds like a planned environmental community for writers, but is in fact a Radio Shack Model 4 computer with special software and input and output devices. It is designed so that even the most severely disabled person can communicate--slowly, but completely.
It works something like this: A sensor is placed on or near the muscle group over which disabled person has the most control. The only movement necessary in successful applications has been the tapping of teeth, the twitch of a thumb, the raising of an eyebrow, or the blink of an eye. When activated by the tap, twitch, raise, or blink the switch gives a single command, roughly translated as "This One."
On a screen is the alphabet, along with numbers and some punctuation laid out in a grid, five across and ten down.
I tried the Living Center with an eye switch. It is an infra red device developed by Walt's father. An invisible beam of light is reflected off the eyeball. When the beam is broken, by a blink or a squint, the "This One" signal is sent to the computer. The switch fits over the head and in front of the eyes, like a pair of racing goggles.
A pointer starts at the top and travels down, stopping for a moment at the first letter of each row. After all ten rows are visited, the pointer returns to the top and makes the trip again. A blink at any row causes the pointer to travel horizontally across the selected row. A second selects a specific letter, and a new screen appears.
The new screen has 50 words on it, all of which start with the letter chosen, and is arranged in the same five-across-ten-down format. The pointer continues its vertical search, and a blink causes the pointer to travel horizontally across the chosen row. A second blink selects a specific word. The Word is added to the work area at the bottom of the screen, and the top of the screen returns to the alphabet.
In this way, sentences are built, word upon word. It is slow--five to ten words per minute (about as fast as I type)--but considering the fact that complete thoughts and ideas can be expressed by someone who has control over the movement of just one eyelid, it is remarkable. One of the tragedies of ALS is that the mind remains clear and alert while all the methods of communication, including speech, are taken away. The Words+ Living Center allows people with ALS and other severe disabilities to communicate with friends and loved ones longer than ever before possible.
The + part of Words+ includes games, the ability to draw, a voice synthesiser, and on/off control for electrical appliances.
Anything Words+ makes can be adapted by Walt Woltosz and his associates for specific needs. He is a man dedicated to serving the disabled. Why did he give up an outrageously high paying job in aerospace for the non-paying (thus far) job of developing computer systems for the disabled? "You only go through life once, and you've got to do what feels best. Unlocking people's minds gives me the most satisfaction of all."
The concept of unlocking is one that carries through in his company logo, a key, and the company motto. "Unlocking the Person."