Buried under the hype of the AI revolution, tech giants are quietly rolling out services for people with disabilities that they hope will drive more transformation for customers.
Apple and Google are leaders in this field, utilizing sensors and cameras in their best-selling smartphones that allow users to edit, enhance and enhance their photos and audio.
Among the latest announcements, Apple unveiled its Live Speech feature in May that uses machine learning — Apple’s term for artificial intelligence — to recreate a user’s voice.
The idea is to allow people who are at risk of losing the ability to speak to write messages and have them read out in their natural voice.
Google, meanwhile, is testing an update to its Lookout app, a program that describes images for blind and visually impaired people.
The new version, Google says, will use artificial intelligence to identify objects without the need for labeling.
– Digital “curb cuts” –
Both companies are keen to describe this as the norm.
“We try to invest a lot of time, early and often,” Sarah Herrlinger, who heads Apple’s accessibility initiatives, told AFP at a recent tech event in Paris.
When asked about the process behind developing a product like the Vision Pro — a headset that launched to much fanfare earlier this month — she said the idea was “to make sure that when we’re at the point of making an announcement like this, we we can say that we have been thoughtful about this”.
Eve Andersson, head of accessibility at Google, says similarly and told AFP that hundreds of people work full-time on accessibility at the company.
“More importantly, we believe that accessibility is a core part of the work of everyone who creates products,” she said.
If there is a discrepancy between the approaches of the companies, it is more in focus than practicality.
While Herrlinger stresses that Apple is aiming very hard, Andersson is keen to talk about how such features end up improving everyone’s lives.
She describes it as digital “curb cutting,” an idea named after the initiative to lower curbs on sidewalks that was originally intended to help people in wheelchairs but also assisted people with strollers, bicycles, or those carrying something awkward.
Andersson cites digital cutting edge technologies such as autocorrect, autocomplete, and voice recognition software.
“A lot of this was originally developed as accessibility technology, but now it’s just a productivity enhancer, for all of us,” she said.
– ‘Marketplace Reality’ –
Google and Apple are among the most recognizable brands on the planet, and both describe how they develop accessibility features by gathering feedback from large numbers of their users.
They are also among the wealthiest companies, so they can go into detail in product planning.
Herrlinger said Apple had worked closely with Team Gleason, a charity founded by former American football player Steve Gleason who was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a rare, incurable and debilitating disease.
Apple worked with his foundation to ensure that its products would work for those suffering from ALS.
But Apple and Google aren’t the only ones developing accessibility technologies—the increased availability of AI models has sparked a lot of creativity.
Microsoft has developed SeeingAI, which describes images for the visually impaired, and there are a number of startups in this field.
French company Sonar Vision is developing technology to guide visually impaired people around cities, and Equally AI is using the ChatGPT bot to improve website accessibility.
Manuel Pereira of the French Valentin Hauy organization, which fights for increased access, believes that artificial intelligence has the potential to give blind and visually impaired people more autonomy.
But he had a warning for the companies in this area.
“If we fall into an economic model that emphasizes profitability, the door can close as quickly as it opened,” he said.
Google’s Andersson suggests the opposite, saying that the realization that one billion people have a disability has made companies realize what this could mean for their bottom line.
“That’s the reality of the marketplace, not all companies do it out of the goodness of their hearts,” she said.
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