For Whom Do We Innovate?

If you ever wondered about the power of innovation to radically change lives, wonder no more.  Anish Sarma, a volunteer at SpeakYourMind Foundation (SYMF) and research engineer at Braingate, tells us. SYMF spun out of the BrainGate lab at Brown University and Massachusetts General Hospital to develop communication technologies for people who can't communicate effectively because of neurological injury and disease.  You see why I love working with Millennials?? Please consider donating here.


For Whom Do We Innovate?

I didn't really "get" tablets for a long time. There wasn't much I could do on a tablet that I wouldn't rather do on a laptop. The main advantage of the tablet seemed to be that it made streaming video and social media look nicer.

Then I saw someone use a tablet to type "Hello."

The typist was a woman who is paralyzed from the neck down and unable to speak. Technology developed by the SpeakYourMind Foundation has enabled her and others with severe disabilities to communicate, when other, costlier technologies have been less successful. The growth of tablets as a platform has helped make SpeakYourMind's technology practical and affordable. (Disclosure: I'm a volunteer and unabashed shill for SpeakYourMind.)

As an engineer, I'm as enthusiastic about innovation as anyone. I'm waiting for my jetpack, too. Sometimes, however, I wonder what exactly we're reaching for. The sleek, frictionless future sold by our most successful tech-media companies says, "You deserve better than to lift a finger." But for people who can't use their fingers or their arms or their voices, the technology designed to help is paleolithic compared to common consumer gadgets. I'm learning to measure the success of an innovation not by its profit margins but by its benefit to people on the margins. Ubiquity is not the same thing as progress.

That's why I've been so excited to volunteer with SpeakYourMind. The core technology of SpeakYourMind is simple. But the group's real innovation is its commitment to using that technology to advance the basic rights of people with severe disabilities: to involve them in fundamental decisions about their own health care, to bring them into the workforce, and to give them the freedom to express themselves to their loved ones and the world.

Every new tech startup claims to be about people, not gadgets. SpeakYourMind has me convinced.