Artificial intelligence hasn’t been around long enough to tackle every opportunity, but Microsoft wants to speed up innovation with a program called “AI for Accessibility” that was announced earlier this year with $25 million in funding. Its goals include developing more AI in the company and giving out grants to others who want to build tools for disabled communities. With AI, Lay-Flurrie says that technology that she thought was five to 10 years out is now more like one to three years away.

“It’s stupidly exciting for disability, honestly,” she says.

Microsoft's Seeing AI app helps the visually impaired by translating text into spoken words. Photo credit: Microsoft

Of course, companies get something out of this, too. Businesses trying to recruit from the limited AI talent pool can use social good projects to convince potential hires that their work will contribute in a meaningful way to the world. Building products that work for previously ignored disabled communities also expands their potential user base. And in a lot of cases, new features can be baked into products already used by non-disabled groups, making them better and more profitable.

It’s not just big companies innovating in this space. Over 100,000 deaf and hard of hearing individuals have used Ava, an app that allows them to take part in group conversations in either English or French (with more limited use for Spanish, Italian, German, and Russian). Everyone engaged in a conversation opens Ava on their phones, then speaks normally as the app listens in. Ava converts spoken words into text in nearly real time, rendering each speaker’s words into a different color for those needing to read along to follow the chat.

Voiceitt is an app for people with speech impediments, including both those who need it temporarily after strokes and brain injuries, and those with more long-term conditions like cerebral palsy, Parkinson’s, and Down’s syndrome. Using machine learning, Voiceitt picks up speakers’ unique speech patterns, recognizes any mispronunciations, and normalizes their speech before creating an output of audio or text.

Products that were designed for a general audience are also being used to increase accessibility. Smart assistants like Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri have become some of the biggest helpers for blind users, allowing them to get online more easily. Users are discovering new ways to open up voice-based assistants to the deaf, too. One project made an Echo able to understand and respond in sign language using a webcam.

“Accessibility is designed into everything today,” Lay-Flurrie says. “We need to make it part of the air that we breathe.”

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Driving Innovation

Paulo Pinheiro, a 34-year-old robotics PhD from Brazil, was waiting for a flight at the airport when he saw a person his age in a wheelchair who didn’t seem like she could move very well.

“But she had a great smile,” he says.

That insight led Pinheiro to launch the startup HOOBOX Robotics. Its first product, called the Wheelie 7, lets wheelchair users initiate moves like going forward, turning, and stopping by making nine distinct facial expressions. While the computer vision behind the technology is cutting edge, the kit itself takes just seven minutes—hence, the name—to add to a wheelchair and is easy enough to install that even non-techie family members can do it. There are currently 55 people in the U.S. using the Wheelie 7—mostly quadriplegics, people with ALS, and senior citizens.

“Five years ago, this would have been impossible,” Pinheiro says.

While Pinheiro’s team is still testing the Wheelie 7, which retails for $3,600, he says they are already working on features that would allow users to use facial expression to activate and use smart assistants.

“Not only can they use it to get around, but they can also use it to connect with the world,” Pinheiro says.

The HOOBOX Wheelie uses machine learning to recognize facial expressions to command a user's wheelchair. Photo credit: hoobox2017, Flickr

An Inclusive Future

All types of AI need diverse data sets to prevent algorithms from learning bias or coming up with results that discriminate against certain groups. While this problem is usually invoked in the context of racial and gender discrimination, people with disabilities are also at risk, according to an American Association of People with Disabilities’ (AAPD) technology consultant, Henry Claypool.

“We need to have a more progressive agenda to make sure people with disabilities are represented in data,” says Claypool.

Including all types of disabilities will be tricky. Data profiles of people with disabilities are sometimes easy to spot, which makes privacy a concern—especially for conditions that have a high chance for stigmatization, like mental health issues. But gathering the necessary data is doable with the right efforts to anonymize any identifying information. Figuring out how to get this right is essential, Claypool adds: Not being reflected in the data from the start will jeopardize people with disabilities’ access to ubiquitous technologies that are becoming an essential part of the fabric of the modern world.

“It could have a huge equalizing effect,” Claypool says. But, he adds, “These data innovations won’t benefit everyone if we aren’t careful.”

James Bowen’s family has felt the effect of the lack of planning for accessibility. An update to the Echo now requires users to confirm that they want to make a call, which makes it harder for Kaden to use. Still, James sees new technology as a way to open up the world for his son and is already researching new tools to try out.

“It’s the future of what we are looking for and how we are trying to motivate him,” James says.

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