How AI Can Revolutionize Life For The Disabled

Digital assistants like Google Home are marketed to everyone. But for disabled people, in particular, they can be a godsend. There are also innovations like MyEye, a visual recognition device, that can be life altering for the visually impaired.

Woman wearing OrCam MyEye 2.0
Woman wearing OrCam MyEye 2.0
Remy Demichelis

PARIS — The kitchen is long, with a table for breakfast or coffee — normal for a Parisian apartment. And even though it belongs to Christian Laine, an adapted software developer for the French Federation of the Blind (FAF), there's nothing overtly technological about the place. "It isn't all connected," he says. Not like the Google showcase models where everything from the pop-corn machine to the living room lights relies on one vocal assistant.

Look carefully, though, and on the table there is a discreet Google Home speaker that Laine, who is blind, calls to consult the weather or listen to the radio. "Ok Google: play Franceinfo." Indeed, vocal assistants are quickly becoming an essential tool for the FAF developer. "It opens superb opportunities for the blind," he says. "When it comes to Google Home, we are equal to the non-blind."

Laine can buy train tickets and check his calendar with his Google Home. He still hesitates on the brand for his connected thermostat (between Nest, an American company, and Netatmo, a French one) and waits impatiently for new devices like the voice-assistant-equipped microwave oven announced by Amazon. Already he can voice-activate his Samsung television, but it's not yet linked to Google Home. Nor is his electric stove-top or kitchen scale, which read aloud the heating level and weight.

Another FAF affiliate, digital director, Fernando Pinto Da Silva, hopes to to be able to connect light bulbs to his digital assistant. "My partner and I are blind, but I would like to know when the lights are on or off to not leave our daughter, who sees well, in the dark," he explains. For now, though, he finds the cost too high still: 20 euros minimum per bulb, and not all are compatible with his system.

The voice is becoming a new interface to access everyday tools and the internet. "Today, 20% of mobile searches are done by voice," Cécile Pruvost, manager of strategy and development at Google, explained during an early December conference at the National Institute for Blind Youths (INJA).

The consumer measurement company Médiamétrie estimates that some 1.7 million smart speakers were sold in France during their first year of availability. Worldwide, between 62 million and 75 million units were sold in 2018, at least double the previous year's reports. For now, the market is dominated by Amazon.


Google Home Assistant— Photo: NBD Photos/Flickr

More often than not, every brand of connected speaker or smartphone has an assistant: Siri for Apple, HomePod, and iPhone; Google Assistant for Google Home and Pixel; and Amazon's Alexa for Echo. But soon these vocal assistants will perhaps be like browsers, separated from the hardware. Orange says that its Livebox, which already features Alexa, will also have Djingo, an in-house creation. And the Mozilla Free Software Foundation, of Firefox fame, developed its own vocal assistant to facilitate what is referred to by the barbaric concept of "interoperability of systems' or simply "all connected."

I don't want Google to know all about me.

But these tools are also raising some questions. During the INJA conference, in which Google participated, a blind audience member asked about having his personal data returned before the information is sent to the servers of the Internet giant to be processed. "I don't want Google to know all about me, the person said. In response, Cécile Pruvost said that, "Every user can share or hide his or her history." The developers also insist that the devices only process information when they're asked to "wake up."

In order to short-circuit such problems, the French start up Snips presented, at the CES (Consumer Electronics Show) of Las Vegas, special smart chips that work with household appliances like ovens, vacuum cleaners, etc. Their focus is on "local information," meaning the data doesn't leave the hardware.

Seeing is believing

But it's also thanks to the vast processing of data that Artificial Intelligence is making such strides. That goes for both voice and visual recognition technology. The more data, the more the machine can train itself to learn to recognize patterns. Indeed, some visual recognition systems are now more accurate than humans for identifying objects or animals in photos.

Microsoft was the first to make such an announcement, in 2015. That same year the Israeli company OrCam began marketing a so-called intelligent camera for the visually impaired: MyEye. Mounted on glasses and equipped which a small loudspeaker, it can read text and recognize banknotes or people and announce them aloud. With this device, the data is stored locally. They're pricey — in the 3,750-euro to 4,750-euro range — but in France the cost can be partially defrayed by the MDPH, the Departmental Office For Handicapped People.

Microsoft also entered this market with the app Seeing AI, which has been available in France since December 2017 but only in English. A French language version is expected to arrive this year. The tool is free but stores data to process in the cloud. It can also describe scenes (imperfectly) and people or indicate the brightness level. It is only available on Apple's App Store for now.

This is not a coincidence. "I don't know any brail-using blind person who doesn't have an iPhone as a smartphone," Fernando Pinto Da Silva explains. The reason is simple: Apple was the first manufacturer to include a voiceover screen reader in its devices — in 2009. It did so to access the U.S. public education market, which implemented requirements under pressure from influential advocacy groups.

France also has rules in place that, in theory at least, require the websites of public services to be accessible to the blind. But there are problems still with compliance and enforcement, says Pinto Da Silva.

New rules are expected, however. And for some private firms, catering to disabled people makes sense just from a market standpoint. France has an estimated 1.7 million blind or partially-sighted people. Worldwide, there are around 250 million, a number that could double or triple by 2050 due to population growth and the aging population.

Turning spoken language into written words and vice-versa.

Still, regulation continues to be the best incentive, as Olivier Jeannel found with his application RogerVoice, aimed at deaf people (like himself) and the hard of hearing, who number approximately 4 million in France. "The law gave us a boost," he says in reference to a rule that, since last October, requires large businesses to have a telephone service that's accessible to the deaf and hard of heading.

RogerVoice fills that niche by turning spoken language into written words, and vice-versa. It also features are video sign-language option. The idea came to Jeannel him when was in the United States, precisely because accessibility was more developed there. To date, he has signed about 20 partnerships with business, including OuiSNCF, Allianz, GRDF and Aéroport de Paris. He also helps operators such as Orange, Bouygues, and SFR, but insists he has no intention of competing with them.

RogerVoice collaborates with Ava, a start-up aimed at the same demographic and co-founded by another Frenchman, Thibault Duchemin, who like Jeannel studied at UC Berkeley, in the United Sates, albeit some years later. Unlike Jeannel, Duchemin, who was born in 1991, can hear well. But he's the only one in his family who can. Having grown accustomed to playing the interpreter during his childhood, he had the intuition to develop a tool to facilitate dialogue between deaf people and those who haven't mastered sign language.

"The problem isn't hearing," he sas. "It's communication."

Ava can transcribe discussions between multiple people on a smartphone screen, but everyone must have the application. The service is free to use for five hours per month. Unlimited access costs 29 euros. It was launched in the United States in 2016 and in France just last summer. Already Duchemin has about 100,000 monthly users in the two countries.

"I don't want to wait for Apple and Google to develop this software and leave us to recover the crumbs," he says. What's more, Duchemin doesn't think the app should be limited just to the deaf and hard of hearing; it could be useful for those who want to catch-up with a meeting or follow it at a distance.

Still, like the other new products described above, Ava aims first and foremost to provide accessibility to people who are too often left out of the loop. And provided the right kinds of regulations are in place, and the interest is there among corporations and developers, what we're seeing now is just the beginning of what AI can offer.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!