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MIT Technology Review

Humanitarians

They’re using technology to identify injustices and help bring about a fairer, better world.
  • John Porter

    Age:
    33
    Affiliation:
    University of Washington
    Country of birth:
    US

    His innovations could make all kinds of products more accessible to people with disabilities

    Photograph of John PorterPhotograph of John Porter

    John Porter is working to make sure people with disabilities can play video games. For anyone without disabilities, Porter says, the question of whether a game might be a good fit for them is largely a matter of taste—but for people with impairments, they have to figure out if they’ll be able to engage at all.

    For Porter, who has spinal muscular atrophy, these barriers aren’t just theoretical. “Right now, people don’t have that information,” he says. “All they can do is drop sixty bucks to buy a new release and then hope they’ll be able to play it.”

    Porter, who works at Microsoft as a user experience designer, wants the games industry to take accessibility into account from the very beginning. That means creating a system by which accessibility—for people with motor, sensory, or cognitive disabilities—is assessed. Porter is devising a robust set of objective yes-or-no questions about motor interaction—does a game require rapid button presses, or sustained button holds? Does it require combinations of three or more buttons simultaneously?

    Porter hopes his system will get developers to think more about their games’ design at the earliest stages. “When people do this long enough, it’s going to change the way they visualize their process from day one,” Porter says. Though he’s passionate about gaming, he sees his work as having broader implications.  “We can begin to ask, ‘How can this information help our devices and digital environments be more responsive and adaptive to our needs and abilities?’“ he says. “That is the logical next frontier of adaptive technologies.”

  • Himabindu Lakkaraju

    Age:
    29
    Affiliation:
    Harvard University
    Country of birth:
    India

    Her AI program aims to weed out bias in decision making

    Photograph of Himabindu LakkarajuPhotograph of Himabindu Lakkaraju

    Himabindu Lakkaraju designed an artificial intelligence program that serve as a bias check for decision makers like judges and doctors.

    Machine learning and AI are increasingly used in law enforcement to make decisions about which defendants get bail, in health care to determine medical treatments, and at financial institutions to determine who gets loans. But making decisions by automation can have pitfalls—software can miss the nuance that a human may catch when looking at a criminal, medical, or credit record. But humans can also miss nuances and have their own biases—especially when they’re pressed for time and have to make life-altering decisions.

    Lakkaraju’s system doesn’t rely solely on human choices or on machine learning but uses a combination of the two. Most of her work deals with data sets in which she could see the expected outcomes from both AI and the human decision makers, and spot where bias might occur.

    Her work is now being used by schools in Montgomery County, Maryland, to help them identify at-risk students and predict the likelihood that a child might need extra tutoring or mentoring.

    “School districts are often limited in their resources—so knowing this likelihood will help the school districts assign those students to interventions who are most likely to benefit from them,” Lakkaraju says.

  • Ida Pavlichenko

    Age:
    32
    Affiliation:
    Harvard’s Wyss Institute
    Country of birth:
    Azerbaijan

    Her invention could make ear infections easier to treat, especially in children

    Photograph of Ida PavlichenkoPhotograph of Ida Pavlichenko

    Ida Pavlichenko has engineered a major improvement to the ear tubes that doctors use to combat the ear infections that many young children endure.

    The tubes in use today attract biofilms, leading to more infections. Pavlichenko has developed a smaller, infection-resistant tube that has proved safe in animal tests. Her tube is selective in what fluids it allows through—so medication can be delivered, but water from showering and swimming won’t get in.

    Pavlichenko hopes that improved tubes will also lead to new approaches for treating hearing loss, which now affects 450 million people around the world. The number is expected to double over the next three decades, as the population ages and music blasted through headphones take its toll.

    Pavlichenko was pregnant when she decided to pursue middle ear infections in her research. But solving the problem has taken on new urgency now that she has a child and knows what it’s like to see the child suffer.

    “The sooner you bring kids to daycare, the sooner you experience the terror of colds and endless antibiotic treatment,” says Pavlichenko, a fellow at Harvard’s Wyss Institute and cofounder of a startup called PionEar. She notes that some children have to have the current tubes implanted several times to end the cycle of painful infections, antibiotics, and speech delays.

    Not only can the tubes themselves get infected but they can fall out or get stuck when they need to come out. Implanting them requires general anesthesia, sometimes more than once.

    In adults, ear problems can be even more challenging, because tubes may fail to stay in place long enough and medication is tricky to deliver deep inside an adult ear. Pavlichenko’s tubes address all these problems and are more effective, better fitting, and less likely to lead to damage, she says.