As the global stage for innovations in emerging technology, CES always helps shape PEAT’s focus on the Future of Work. Organized by the Consumer Technology Association (CTA), this year’s show did not disappoint. By prioritizing accessibility here and now, CES highlighted how next-generation technology can transform the workforce and make it more inclusive for people with disabilities (PWD).
In the Exhibit Hall Accessibility Marketplace, Vispero Vice President Matt Ater noted expanding interests in accessibility and assistive technology at CES. He reported that foot traffic to his booth has sharply increased every year.
Steve Ewell, Executive Director of the CTA Foundation, likewise emphasized the uptick in attention to accessible technology across product exhibits and sessions. “Accessible technologies were on display across the show, including the WHILL Autonomous Drive wheelchair, Best of Innovation Award winner in Accessibility Technology. We saw large crowds for sessions on AI accessibility and a pitch competition addressing social isolation.”
Steve raised the example of Richard Branson’s Extreme Tech Challenge, a global competition for technology entrepreneurs and their businesses; three winners of the 2019 Tech Challenge all integrated a focus on accessibility or aging adults to enhance their products’ societal impact. “This is not an accessibility contest,” he stressed. “The general judges saw the value in this life-changing work.”
PEAT has also observed a proliferation of discussions on accessibility and universal design since we first attended CES three years ago. We started the week by attending the CTA Foundation’s Accessibility Roundtable. About 50 companies spotlighted how they work to ensure their products are accessible to PWD and 65+ adults as they bring them to market.
Dialogues on emerging technologies like 5G mobile communications and smart systems using artificial intelligence (AI) dominated the session and were a common theme throughout the conference. Speakers frequently discussed the impact of these technologies on local communities, government agencies, and private workplaces. Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg stressed in his keynote address that “5G will change everything: 5G is the promise of so much more than what we have seen from [existing] wireless technology.” A faster digital infrastructure will boost work processes across industries, from manufacturing to customer service to transportation.
Speaking of transportation, the range of exciting innovations at CES also included a surge of technology advancements for automated vehicles (AV), including wheelchairs, buses, cars, and ridesharing services. Voyage, for example, is developing an approach to ensure their AV shuttles are more universally accessible. Given that transportation represents one of the largest barriers to work for people with disabilities, AV technologies offer great promise to improve employment outcomes.
CES discussions also explored risks for emerging technology adoption. During one session, government and industry leaders debated the issue of unconscious bias undergirding behavior of AI systems, including for hiring and recruitment. They shared concerns about the potential impact of AI technology on existing non-discrimination protections in current laws. While racing to bring their AI-centered products to market, many technology companies do not yet explicitly consider non-discrimination laws, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The Future Looks Bright
PEAT was excited to observe a heightened focus on workplace technologies across sessions and activities. Earlier this year, CTA formed the 21st Century Workforce Council to explore these issues in greater depth. While attending CES, we saw product exhibits and discussions that illustrated how consumer and workplace technologies are beginning to blur product lines because of accelerating remote work and the gig economy.
CTA and IBM also announced the launch of the CTA Apprenticeship Coalition during the conference. This new national initiative will create thousands of new apprenticeships and help close the technical skills gap companies face in hiring employees. PEAT is looking forward to supporting this initiative as it aligns with our focus on closing the accessible technology skills gap. The coalition’s work also dovetails with our emphasis on the role inclusive apprenticeships can play in enabling people with disabilities to attain high-skill, high-paying jobs.
In short, this year’s CES marked major advancements in mainstreaming accessibility. Please stay tuned for upcoming Future of Work podcast episodes this spring that will explore these issues in greater depth!