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Effective Altruistic Assistive Technology – Erik Kondo

Updated: Feb 5

Infographic listing many aspects of Effective Altruism.
Aspects of Effective Altruism

I have recently learned about the movement of Effective Altruism. While there is no absolute agreed upon definition, the Center for Effective Altruism uses the following:

“Effective Altruism is about using evidence and reason to figure out how to benefit others as much as possible and taking action on that basis”. The general idea is that given a world with limited resources and many problems, it is important to focus on maximizing the overall benefit of your altruistic efforts. If there were unlimited resources or few problems, then there would be no need for Effective Altruism. Another aspect of Effective Altruism is to concentrate on intractable problems that have been historically ignored or that affect marginalized populations.

Effective Altruism follows the guidelines of:

· Commitment to Others

· Scientific Mindset

· Openness

· Integrity

· Collaborative Spirit

In my opinion, these concepts can easily be applied to the development of assistive technology.

The goal of assistive technology is to help people with disabilities live more active and fulfilling lives. Therefore, all assistive technology can be thought of as beneficial. But given that resources for the development and use of AT are limited, it makes sense to maximize the impact of AT through applying the lens of Effective Altruism.

In other words, if you believe in the movement of Effective Altruism, then it follows that you would apply those ideals to the development Assistive Technology in order to create the greatest impact using the lowest amount of resources.

Applying the standards of Effective Altruism to assistive technology creates a framework to gauge the real world impact of an assistive technology device. For example, if you spend $5,000,000 developing a $100,000 portable levitating platform so that wheelchair using concert goers can have a better view, you have created assistive technology. But you have not created Effective Altruistic Assistive Technology. Whereas, developing a design for a locally produced tool kit to enable wheelchair users in developing countries to make inexpensive home repairs to their wheelchair, does qualify.

In each of the previously described cases, the AT provides a real benefit. The difference is the scale and impact of the benefit. Therefore, an integral part of Effective Altruistic AT is using scientific methods to accurately forecast both the scale and impact of the proposed AT. It is not enough to just assume something is a problem, or to ask the opinion of a few random people with disabilities and then come to a definitive conclusion. You have to thoroughly research the problem to ensure that the resources expended will be used in a wise and effective manner.

I think that applying the guidelines of Effective Altruism to Assistive Technology will go a long way towards reducing the tendency of designers to create expensive high technology AT that few can afford or are able to acquire, or resource intensive devices that provide minimal real world benefit. It will also create a standard for AT projects that are part of engineering classes at universities and high schools. It is not sufficient to simply have “good intentions”, or to work only on AT that is fun to build regardless of how impractical the resulting device will be.

Effective Altruism for Assistive Technology teaches us that conserving scarce resources, creating real world impact, and evaluating results matter as much as having the desire to make the world a better place.

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