The tech guru

Post date: 
Thursday, 12 April 2018
Robin Spinks smiling, wearing a shirt and smart denim jacket

Robin Spinks has spent his career dedicated to technology and getting the word out on how it can make life easier. Robin has limited sight due to albinism and so is well placed to influence companies like Samsung and Apple to understand what blind people need. Here, he talks about how tech will enable positive change with Connect.

“I feel really optimistic about so many different technologies,” Robin said. “I think Artificial Intelligence (AI) hasn’t really taken off yet for mainstream consumers. AI is used to enable smart speakers in homes, like the Amazon Echo and Google Home.

“These devices connect you to the internet and allow you to do things like order your weekly shop, contact friends and family around the world and check train information, just by using your voice,” Robin said. “But we’re really only at the start of the whole explosion of AI having a role in our lives.”

Self-driving cars

“I think transport is going to be an absolute feast of opportunity in the next few years," said Robin.

Mobility and getting from A to B off the public transport grid is a huge challenge for anybody with sight loss. That’s why another area of technology which Robin believes will impact on people’s lives is connected autonomous vehicles, sometimes referred to as self‑driving cars.

“Connected autonomous vehicle is the catch-all term for things which move around which are powered by computers. That could be not only independent autonomous cars, but things like helicopters too,” Robin said.

“I was lucky enough a few months ago to get a trip around Mountain View in California in a self-driving car. It is quite a profound experience when you first travel alone and recognise that a computer is safely and very capably taking you around a town centre. This would have been the stuff of sci-fi just a few years ago, but it’s becoming real.”

“Now, there are places in the world where there are large numbers of autonomous vehicles on the road, albeit in a test capacity. But with many self-driving features like auto park, lane control and collision avoidance, we are edging closer to a world where we’ve got fully autonomous cars on the road.”

Equality through technology

Prior to working as RNIB’s Senior Innovation and Technology Relationships Manager, Robin spent a number of years in Africa and South Asia influencing governments and developing low-cost assistive aids.

“Artificial Intelligence and connected autonomous vehicles will probably be two of the biggest things that we will look back on 15 or 20 years from now as pivotal turning points. I think for blind and partially sighted people, something which enables us to overcome our mobility challenge is absolutely enormous.

"Thinking beyond self-driving cars, with some of the navigation technology that’s coming along including robotic devices, people may not have to use a guide dog to be assisted. That’s not to say that there won’t be a role for guide dogs, because we know that there always will be. People and animals have a very special bond, but I think people have asked a question ‘Will guide dogs be necessary in the future?’

“What will matter to people is that they have the right solution for them, as an individual. So I think the opportunity to bring about greater equality has never been greater,” Robin said.

Technology at home

From smartphones and tablets to smartwatches and trackers, Robin is always eager to try out the latest technology.

“I’m often found enthusing and sharing ideas about technology. I’ve spent a lot of time with wearable tech like smartwatches. Of course PCs still have a role, but only occasionally.

“Technology is everywhere that I can put it in my home and sometimes it’s in places that you can’t even put it. And I’m constantly looking for new ways to use it to just make life more fun, engaging and enjoyable. If you came to my house we’ve set everything up with smart plugs,” Robin explained.

“Smart plugs are plugs that have a wi-fi receiver that you plug your 13 amp plug into. I’m using them with things like smart light bulbs. Being able to turn the lights on and off remotely and using a coloured light that works for us in the house is fantastic. Just imagine instead of having white light bulbs, you can have one of 16 million colours,” Robin said.

Accessibility is key

Although he loves trying out new technologies and embracing the fun that’s to be had with devices and functionality, Robin remains resolute on not taking his eye off maintaining the accessibility agenda: “We can’t relax just yet. There are lots of technologies being invented where blind and partially sighted people’s needs have not been accommodated.”

"We need to accelerate that agenda so development always takes account of people’s needs and products, and services and technologies are developed inclusively. We should not be retrofitting new technology with accessibility in mind. We need to get beyond that as a big priority.”

Robin’s three tech tips
  1. Experiment with dictation and voice control options on your smartphone. You don’t always have to type.
  2. Try one new piece of tech every time you get the chance. Variety helps you pin down the best experiences.
  3. Remember, if something feels awkward or difficult, there is probably a better option being developed just around the corner like a better app or online service, so don’t be put off.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2018 edition of Connect Magazine.