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How Artificial Intelligence is making the world more accessible

Visually impaired man using Digital Assistant and Ease of Access functions on mobile phone.

Technology is helping people with vision loss to lead a more independent life with an app called Be My Eyes which connects blind users and those with poor eyesight with sighted volunteers to give them advice through a live video connection.

Want to know if a shirt matches the rest of your outfit or need to check if food is not out of date?

The person at the end of your call can assist, but thanks to AI the application could become more advanced.

Last year Be My Eyes teamed up with OpenAI to create a new system which has no need for a human to ensure you look stylish or end up with food poisoning.

A trial period enabled a blind person to hail down a taxi by raising their hand letting the user know when the cab was nearby.

It’s not just blind users who will benefit from AI, there are an increasing number of tools being introduced which will support disabled and elderly people.

Using AI is actually nothing new, although the world started to understand its potential last year with the advent of ChatGPT, we have seen services such as automated captioning for a while, which could be classed as an early form of artificial intelligence.

Just like the Be My Eyes app, a Google tool has also had an upgrade thanks to AI. The service which lets blind or vision impaired people what’s on their screens now includes a “question and answer” feature.

Eve Andersson, Google’s senior director of product inclusion, equity, and accessibility, told CNN: “The promise of AI has been evident for many, many years but it has to reach this quality level before it can be a viable thing that you include in products.”

AI can present information in various formats, such as audio, text, photos and videos making it accessible for users living with specific disabilities.

“(People’s) accessibility needs take many different forms, but a large class of disabilities are really about input and output, it’s about how a person perceives information,” Andersson continued. “There are hearing disabilities, vision, motor, speech, cognitive and all of these can involve a need for different modalities (of information) and one thing that AI is fantastic at is translating between modalities.”

“We don’t want to leave people behind … technology in general has the ability to level the playing field.

“But there are also financial reasons like being able to sell your products to government entities, to educational institutions.”

Experts at the University of Illinois have devised AI tools which are able to recognise a number of speech patterns which, in turn, can enhance verbal recognition tools, such as speech assistants, translators and voice-to-text apps.

The Speech Accessibility Project is collecting more than 200,000 recordings from volunteers with neurological conditions such as motor neurone disease, Downs Syndrome and Parkinsons to become more familiar to people with a speech impediment - by learning new voices the system now only misunderstands speech 12 percent of the time.

Clarion Mendes, a speech language pathologist and clinical assistant professor who helps lead the project, said: “The more diverse types of speech we can get into those machine learning systems and the greater variety of severity, the better those systems are going to be at understanding individuals that don’t have ‘audiobook narrator’ speech.

“I have talked to so many people throughout this project who face huge barriers to life participation because of their communication, individuals with impressive degrees who can’t find employment because of their communication barriers.”

 “If something like assistive technology can make it possible for individuals to find enrichment in their hobbies, in their jobs … all of a sudden these activities that used to take excessive amounts of time or require the person to rely on other individuals, that has increased their independence exponentially.”

[ Researchers use AI to analyse massive datasets of past earthquakes, volcanic activity, and weather patterns. ]

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