Emerging Technologies

How sovereign funds could empower the future of assistive technology and disability AI

Assistive technology products support individuals with disabilities.

Assistive technology products support individuals with disabilities. Image: Freepik.com

Yonah Welker
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  • Globally, it's predicted that 3.5 billion people will need one or more assistive products by 2050.
  • The global assistive technology market is forecast to be worth $31.22 billion by 2030, with artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms rapidly fuelling assistive technologies for individuals with disabilities.
  • Sovereign funds could help close the funding gap in traditional venture capital.

Artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms are rapidly fuelling assistive technologies for individuals with disabilities.

These algorithms can be used to augment smart wheelchairs, walking sticks, geolocation and city tools, and bionic and rehabilitation technologies. They can also support individuals with hearing impairments through computer vision, interpreting sign language or visual impairment, turning images into sounds. There is also a vast range of AI technologies for cognitive disabilities associated with ageing, mental health, autism, dyslexia, attention deficit or challenges of emotion recognition.

The global assistive technology market was valued at $21.95 billion in 2022 and is forecast to reach $31.22 billion by 2030. Assistive technologies also bring economic potential, powering inventions that benefit the general population. However, resources and access to them are still critically limited. One billion children and adults with disabilities and older persons in need of assistive technology are denied access, according to a World Health Organization report. The number of people needing one or more assistive products will rise to 3.5 billion by 2050.

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Development and adoption of assistive technologies also lack support from venture capital and the technology ecosystem due to more extended research and economic return cycle, pushing technologists to leverage public and city programmes (e.g. Horizon 2020, EU Commission innovation programmes), angel investors, assistive technology alliances, communities and family supporters. Finally, developers are frequently disconnected from governors and decision-makers, limiting opportunities for adoption and affordable access.

Sovereign technology funds could cover this gap – emerging entities leveraging countries' resources to address large-scale sustainability, digital and technology ecosystems. They are presented by various sovereign authorities, such as in Norway, China, South Korea, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, and Kuwait. Overseeing wealth that may reach $1.2 trillion, these entities rapidly develop AI investment arms, invest in such areas as robotics, digital infrastructure, super-computing, smart cities, transportation, back venture funds supporting emerging technology and startups, keep stakes and strong connections in big tech companies and portfolios with titles like Apple, Alphabet or NVIDIA.

Sovereign funds could support accessible and assistive technologies, which are also gaining momentum, to empower broader economic initiatives and related innovations such as smart and algorithmic cities.

What makes the development of assistive technologies and AI so complex?

Firstly, many factors make assistive technologies and AI very special, more resource-demanding, and difficult for adoption and long-term sustainability in comparison to other emerging technologies and startups:

Stakeholders: Assistive solutions are often used not only by end users but caregivers, parents, and families, making the research more complex.

Public infrastructure: Urban public spaces meet anywhere between 41% and 95% of the expectations of people with disabilities, which means that modern technology can be incompatible with existing infrastructure and spaces.

Data access: Historically, individuals with disabilities had limited access to healthcare, work, and education, affecting modern statistics and available data sets leveraged by technology developers.

AI model limitations: Mathematical models used in AI tend to be based on generalizations, assumptions and statistical optimizations to better meet the broader population's needs but may end up excluding particular groups.

Skills, literacy, and curriculums: Adopting assistive technologies often requires whole ecosystems and institutions to evolve, including knowledge frameworks, curriculums, skills and technical capacities (e.g. World Health Organization’s Digital Health Competence Framework, and reports addressing recent technologies such as Generative AI).

Adoption and development cycle: The average deployment cycle takes more time, effort and resources than typical digital health or learning startups.

Policies and compliance: Adopting assistive technologies requires meeting a variety of frameworks related to human rights, children protection, and age and gender-specific criteria (e.g. Unicef AI for Children, AI for Girls with Disabilities).

How could sovereign funds empower this work?

The factors listed above make assistive technologies more difficult for traditional and venture investors to consider, pushing technologists to find other funding sources. For instance, technologies addressing cognitive disabilities and autism are frequently supported by angel investors, parents and independent alliances (e.g. US-based Autism Angel Investors). In the EU, disability-related assistive technologies, devices and robotics prototypes are frequently supported through public grants, competitions and programmes.

While viable to build the prototype and sustain some early-stage development, it is not sufficient to keep the technology companies sustainable in the long run, bringing other considerations like crowdfunding or personal resources. But even more importantly, it doesn’t address the biggest challenges of this niche: the infrastructure behind it, adoption and access.

This gap could be addressed by sovereign funds. In comparison to venture funds or traditional investors, they prioritize not only end solutions but the digital and physical infrastructure behind them, including data and access to it. They also back programmes addressing skills, curriculums and human capacities, help to connect research institutions and technologists, and address broader infrastructure and national initiatives. There is also more capability to deal with more risky, complex and long-term projects, bringing more hope for high-technology innovation such as social and soft robotics, rehabilitation, and brain and neuro-technologies.

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What is the World Economic Forum doing to close the disability inclusion gap?

A good example is Saudi Arabia’s PIF fund – known for backing large-scale projects behind Saudi Arabia’s smart cities, digital infrastructure and AI-related investment arm – SCAI encompassing investments in robotics, super-computing, digital infrastructure and other technologies, involving both private and public partners. Saudi Arabia is also known for its research addressing cognitive disabilities such as autism, endocrine disorders and growing partnerships with companies like Boston Dynamics, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and Philips, developing AI upskilling and readiness programmes. Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 (closely reflected by the fund objectives) also brings metrics and vocabulary to disability inclusion, accessibility and economic mobility.

There are also examples when sovereign funds directly back a large venture or hybrid ecosystems to leverage modern mechanics of investing in emerging technologies and startups - like Abu Dhabi’s ADQ. Norward Sovereign Fund is known to keep stakes in companies like Apple, Alphabet, and NVIDIA Corp. At the same time, the Kuwait Investment Authority, The Qatar Investment Authority and the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia are known to invest $3.5 billion in companies like Uber, hybrid deals and portfolios which can be extended to various applications.

The future of assistive technology and economic momentum

Assistive technology and AI algorithms present a vast economic potential targeting not only individuals with disabilities but a broad range of related technologies affecting the future of the workplace, healthcare, learning, and smart and algorithmic cities. Sovereign funds could play an important role in using this momentum to fuel large-scale projects, data and digital infrastructure, the most resource-demanding areas such as supercomputing or robotics, mass upskilling and literacy projects affecting accessibility. Although, it doesn’t exclude existing actors such as public programmes, venture capital, angel investors and supporters targeting more specific areas or smaller projects, thus presenting a more hybrid future of investment and support in this field.

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