How AI is Making Assistive Technologies More Powerful

Girijesh Tripathi October 30, 2019
You might be surprised to learn that the telephone, invented by Alexander Graham Bell, was a result of his work with the deaf community. Bell’s mother was deaf.  If we are to believe the statistics published by the World Bank , almost a billion people around the world suffer from some type of significant disability. How can we help such a huge number of people live a more fulfilling life? Artificial intelligence offers huge potential in helping people with vision, hearing, mobility, cognition and learning disabilities, whether temporary or permanent, to lead a better quality of life. AI-powered assistive technologies have proven to offer significant benefits for people with disabilities especially in terms of human connection, everyday life in the modern world and employment. All this is possible through inclusive design. When such design incorporates AI, it has the power to enhance assistive products through powerful features. In fact, one area where AI and machine learning have made a significant contribution is access to information, such that disabilities don’t limit the opportunities for education, employment, and a better life. Take the example of audiobooks that allow people with visual impairment the ability to enjoy the best works of literature or video captioning that makes content accessible for the hearing impaired, while also ensuring compliance with the ADA regulations. With AI-enabled tools, no one gets left behind. Here’s a look at some ways in which AI enhances assistive technologies to ensure accessibility for all.  
The Future of AI in Assistive Technologies
The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, held in June 2019, recognized that AI has the potential to enhance “inclusion, participation and independence for people with disabilities.” Multiple organizations are already innovating with applications of AI in assistive technologies to enhance accessibility. Here’s a look at some technologies we can look forward to in the near future.  
AI-Based Visual Aids
Microsoft has already released their Seeing AI app for people with visual impairment. Using this app, the user can hold up their phone to an individual and the phone describes what the person looks like, what their hair color is, what their age is, if they seem happy or sad, etc. By pointing the phone towards a product, you can know what the product is, when it expires and all the other details. The app can also read documents and recognize structural elements, such as paragraphs, headings and lists.  
Smarter Glasses
A team at the University of Oxford, in the UK, including neuroscientists and computer vision scientists, have developed “smarter glasses.” These are augmented reality glasses that focus on a specific aspect of sight. For instance, the contrast of an image can be increased or features can be highlighted via AR. These glasses are expected to hit the markets in 2020, with Google helping with the research and investing $658,000 in the project.  
Cognitive Hearing Aids
This takes the usual hearing aid to the next level. Now, the device will not only help the individual to hear sounds, but will also tune into brainwaves to check what the person wants to listen to. This device has been created by researchers at the Columbia University School of Engineering and Applied Science. It tracks the individual’s brainwaves and reads brain activity to determine what the person is more willing to hear. This means that if there are multiple noises or many people speaking, the device can reduce confusion by tuning into the specific voice the wearer wants to here.  
Sign to Text
Not everyone follows sign language. So, to help people with hearing impairment to communicate effectively, work is being done to create a device that can convert sign language into text or voice. The device will include a 3D camera to track movements of the signer and the beta version claims 98% accuracy.
Enhancing Opportunities for Education
The inclusion of Artificial Intelligence can help people with reading and other learning disabilities by making information easier to understand. Work is already ongoing to develop machine learning capabilities that can summarize huge chunks of information into snackable pieces or short abstracts. This means that those who feel overwhelmed when confronted with large amounts of information or data can instead access a distilled form of the same information and benefit from it. When accessibility is ensured in education, it opens up a whole new world of employment opportunities for people with disabilities. Data released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2019 reveals that the unemployment rate for people with disabilities in America is twice as high, at 9%, as compared to those without disabilities, at 4%.   
Equal Opportunities for Employment
With AI implementation in accessibility, people with disabilities would get benfited the most and it would ensure inclusion for all. We will see increased employment rates. he corporate world is evolving rapidly today, fueled by advances in technology. The need to constantly train and upskill the workforce is the need of the hour, and that too at the rapid pace at which technologies are advancing. However, it becomes difficult to provide inclusive corporate training when there are employees with disabilities. Once again, AI comes to the rescue, making corporate training more accessible. For instance, AI helps with image recognition, while NLP can be used to provide alt text for images so that those with vision loss or even blind persons do not miss out on crucial information. It even proves to help create immersive learning modules that are accessible.  
Accessibility Solutions Help Everyone
When any technology, including assistive products are created to address the needs of people with disability, they end up proving advantageous for everyone. For instance, speech-to-text, image recognition, chatbots and more were initially created with accessibility in mind, but they’ve ended up being beneficial for the entire society. Today, assistive technologies powered by AI are being innovated to improve the employability of people with disabilities. However, the accessibility solutions need to address the issue much earlier, at the stage of K-12 education, such that those with disabilities are already empowered with the right tools to improve their own quality of life.    
Girijesh Tripathi

As a lead consultant for accessibility testing at Magic EdTech, Girijesh is actively engaged in testing of new class digital accessibility solutions for education.