Apple, accessibility, and Project Titan


We know Apple is working on a car. We think part of that work will involve building transportation for the world we’re going to live in, not the one in which we exist now. And it should be quite clear by now that the future of transport does not need to be the only invention the Project Titan team creates.

What is a car?

Look at it this way, in developing a car, Apple has had to identify and develop numerous associated technologies, including but not confined to: Machine imaging, artificial intelligence, location and mapping technologies, fail-safe networking, edge data processing, numerous sensors to monitor every detail of the vehicle, intent modeling, driver identification, and traffic and sign analysis.

That’s even before considering vehicle and component design or the development of algorithms sophisticated enough to decide who to kill in the event of an accident in which fatality cannot be avoided: Should the vehicle prioritize the safety of the car occupant or the innocent pedestrian?

What’s the legal and ethical significance of those decisions? What actually is a car?

No wonder development has taken some time. But as Apple answers these questions it is also finding responses to others.

In essence, if you can make an autonomous vehicle, you can also make autonomous machines of any kind. An Apple vacuum cleaner is possible. So, too, is an Apple prosthetic limb.

Apple and health

As I see it, such a limb could use the same autonomous technologies Apple is already developing: sensor-based data to handle reaction, processors with on-board machine learning to do the computation, contextual situation recognition, collision detection.

Apple already has this stuff.

It’s also reasonable to imagine the company understands how profoundly important such technologies may become in one of its business-critical markets.

“If you zoom out into the future, and you look back, and you ask the question, ‘What was Apple’s greatest contribution to mankind?’ It will be about health,” Apple CEO Tim Cook said in 2019.

I don’t think Apple’s ambitions in this are confined to Health, Fitness+ and Apple Watch.

Apple already understands what real-world accessibility challenges are. It knows the profound difference tech can make in overcoming those challenges. It has been building tools to help do so inside its operating systems for decades. Why wouldn’t it combine its existing technologies and knowledge to augment healthcare?

Out on an i-Limb

Prosthetic limbs aren’t perfect, of course. We haven’t quite reached a point at which you can control them by thought (but take a look at this). However, solutions such as those from Icelandic-owned Scottish firm i-Limb, show what’s possible using current technology.

Prosthetics made by that company are already seen as life-changing, and what they do is customized using an iPhone app.

A prosthetic limb equipped with its own on-board intelligence could go one better than that — particularly, if it could also be controlled by gesture, pointer, voice, or eye movements via a headworn device of some kind.

[Also read: Apple’s AR glasses and a future for ‘AppleCare’]

At first glance, prosthetics may not seem to be the kind of mass market Apple seeks. I think that is a myopic understanding, particularly given recent research that claimed it’s a market set to be worth $13.12 billion by 2028. As I see it, if you can build an autonomous vehicle (Apple has called the car the “ultimate mobile device”) then you can build smart mobile solutions for almost any task. This is just one of them.

Mobility and autonomy are just another way technology can augment reality.

Augmented reality

We’re seeing increasing interest around machines from Boston Dynamics (now primarily owned by Hyundai). Apple uses at least one Boston Dynamics system. The current Boston Dynamics robot, Spot, makes use of Intel chips. Could Apple Silicon improve these machines? What was Apple speaking with Hyundai about earlier this year?

Apple doesn’t need to make robots, of course. But experiments in advanced autonomous mobility trend in that direction.

It’s a direction that also encompasses e-bikes, public transportation, drones, space and ocean exploration. Consider how Apple’s existing technology could radically improve what wheelchairs do. Add autonomy. Change lives.

As Apple works on a car, it’s solving a multitude of autonomy challenges and exposing a range of “new and wonderful” opportunities. In the future, we’ll recognize these as foundational technologies for Apple innovation across multiple markets for the next decade or more. Digital device penetration has just begun, the car of the future is not the same animal as those you see on streets today, and the autonomy it will host has implications across every facet of digital transformation. 

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Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.


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