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Artificial Intelligence Helping the Blind

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Dr Chieko Asakawa has received a Medal of Honour in Japan for her work involving artificial intelligence helping the blind. Over the last 30 years, she has been developing a technology to help blind people navigate unfamiliar territory and use computers with Braille

Dr Asakawa is blind herself following an accident in a swimming pool when she was 14. She began with a course in computer software for the blind, then went on to work for IBM where she was able to obtain a doctorate.

She went on to become one of the first people behind the introduction of Braille to computer keyboards. She created the worlds first speech to browser function. This was an innovation that would change the world for blind people, giving them access to information at the tap of a button. 

20 years ago there was practically zero technology that worked on a basis such as this so it was a breakthrough in technology. Since then, Dr Asakawa has gone on to develop an AI assisted navigation tool with the use of micro mapping.

NavCog is a voice controlled smartphone app that helps blind people navigate unfamiliar and hard to navigate indoor spaces. Using low energy bluetooth beacons, placed every 10M and installed throughout the buildings or walkways, data is collected and aligns with the blind persons location. It then conveys the information via a smartphone and headphones to the person.

“We detect user position by comparing the users’ current fingerprint to the server’s fingerprint model. Collecting large amounts of data creates a more detailed map than is available in an application like Google Maps, which doesn’t work for indoor locations and cannot provide the level of detail blind and visually impaired people need” says Dr Asakawa.

The NavCog app is still in the pilot stage and needs more work but eventually it will be extremely helpful to the blind. Currently available in several sites in the US and one in Tokyo, IBM are very close to making the app available to the public.

Dr Asawaka is now an IBM Fellow, a prestigious group that has produced five Nobel prize winners. She has used the app herself and finds it helpful to navigate but still needs the use of her cane. 

man using a cane crossing road

Christine Hunsinger, 70, and her husband Douglas Hunsinger, 65, both blind, tested NavCog at a hotel in their city while attending a conference for blind people.

“It was really liberating to travel independently on my own” said Christine.

” It took all the guesswork out of finding places indoors” said Douglas.

Right now Dr Asakawa is working on a new project. The “AI suitcase”  is a lightweight navigational robot. It is designed for airport travel assisting blind people. It steers the blind person through the airport to their destination and also warns of any flight delays or gate changes. It is a self-driving motorised smart suitcase with an image-recognition camera to detect surroundings, and Lidar – Light Detection and Ranging – for measuring distances to objects.

When a stairs is approaching the suitcase tells the blind person that it needs to be picked up!

The current model is pretty heavy, so IBM is aiming to make the new version lighter and hopes it will be able to hold at least a laptop. The project will hopefully be showcased in Tokyo in 2020.

“I want to really enjoy travelling alone. That’s why I want to focus on the AI suitcase even if it is going to take a long time. I’ve been tackling the difficulties I found when I became blind. I hope these difficulties can be solved.” she says.

Technology has certainly come a long way in assisting people with disabilities. See this recent post on Wheelchair Technology.

It is fantastic to see Artificial Intelligence helping the blind. Check out my recent article on Glasses to Help Blind People See

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Check out the video of a demonstration by Dr Asakawa –

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