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Microsoft aims to harness AI-based tech to empower 1bn people with disabilities

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is the big buzzword in the world of technology as it promises to change the way we live and interact with devices.

For Microsoft, there is nothing “artificial” about delivering on “intelligence” as the supreme aim is to empower nearly one billion people with disabilities.

The excitement about AI is so evident on the Microsoft campus here that various teams associated with the task have focused their energies towards achieving the impossible — to give differently-abled a healthy, dignified life.

The change has been visible in the last couple of years under CEO Satya Nadella who has brought AI to the fore across domains — devices, Cloud, Office 365, Windows and so on.

For him, “Artificial Intelligence represents one of technology’s most important priorities, and healthcare is perhaps AI’s most urgent application.”

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“AI for Accessibility” is a new, $25 million, five-year programme from Microsoft for developers globally, including in India.

The programme will put AI tools in the hands of developers to accelerate the development of accessible and intelligent AI solutions for people with disabilities.

Jenny Lay-Flurrie, Microsoft’s first-ever Chief Accessibility Officer whose deafness set in at a young age, has a mammoth goal ahead — to utilise AI tools for accessibility and inclusion.

“Accessibility is all about making anything and everything accessible to everyone. We have several programmes for the disabled, like ‘Seeing AI’ and auto alt-text features that are helping narrate the world for people who are blind or have low vision,” Jenny told a group of visiting journalists.

The company has developed apps that describe what people see and feel, help them do text-to-speech and speech-to-text translation and, with predictive text, ensure that people don’t need to type as much.

“We now have eye control, learning tools, ‘Editor’ software, video and audio transcription, and ease of Access settings on Windows 10,” she added.

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The “AI for Accessibility” programme provides seed grants of technology to developers, universities, non-governmental organisations and inventors.

At the Accessibility and Inclusion Xbox Lab here, Evelyn Thomas, Senior Programme Manager, is making sure that gamers with limited mobility can enjoy the experience with Xbox Adaptive Controller that has been created to remove barriers by being adaptable to more gamers’ needs.

“Persons with disabilities can now enjoy the immersive experience. You can see here the Xbox family of controllers and devices that are helping such people create a set-up that works for them in a way that is plug-and-play, extensible, and affordable,” Thomas explained.

Microsoft has worked with third-party manufacturers to support external inputs which can be plugged into the new controller. These inputs include PDP’s One-Handed Joystick for the Xbox Adaptive Controller, Logitech’s Extreme 3D Pro Joystick, and Quadstick’s Game Controller.

Designed for the low-vision community, Microsoft’s app called “Seeing AI” harnesses the power of AI to describe people, text and objects. It can tell visually-impaired persons what is around them. If the phone is pointed at a park, the camera app can describe how the scene looks.

Similarly, it can tell the amount of your restaurant bill or narrate just about anything it is pointed.

“AI can help people develop professional skills and influence workplace culture and inclusive hiring,” Jenny said, adding that AI is capable of hearing, seeing, and reasoning with increasing accuracy.

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By making software and devices smarter, and keeping them affordable, people gain independence to perform daily tasks and personalise tools for their unique needs.

“AI-driven technology can create possibilities for all people, regardless of how they listen, speak, or write,” Jenny said.

The truth is that only one in 10 people with disabilities globally has access to assistive technologies and products. And, according to Nadella, it is important for us to figure out how to empower more people.

“It has been a personal passion of mine to help people suffering from disabilities like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and autism,” Nadella said recently.

Nadella’s passion (his son has cerebral palsy) has now turned into a massive mission at Microsoft, with several teams working towards harnessing the power of AI to empower people with disabilities.

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