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Sunday, October 25, 2020

For Microsoft, AI Is About Empowering Billions to Overcome Disabilities

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Artificial Intelligence (AI) is the big buzzword in the tech world as it promises to change the way we live and communicate with our devices.

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But for Microsoft, there is nothing ‘Artificial’ about delivering on ‘Intelligence’ as the main aim is to strengthen nearly one billion people with disabilities.

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

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

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

“Artificial Intelligence for Accessibility” is a new, $25 million, a five-year program from Microsoft development of intelligent and accessible AI solutions for people with disabilities.

Jenny Lay-Flurrie, the tech giant’s first-ever Chief Accessibility Officer whose deafness set in at a very early age, has a broad goal ahead to use AI tools for accessibility and inclusion.

“Accessibility is all about making anything and everything accessible to everyone. We have several programs 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 stated this to a group of visiting journalists.

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

Windows 10 eye control launchpad


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

The “AI for Accessibility” program provides seed grants of tech to developers, universities, NGOs and investors.

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

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

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

Xbox Adaptive Controller

Designed for the low-vision community, Microsoft developed an app called “Seeing AI” that harnesses the power of artificial intelligence to describe people, objects and texts. It can also tell visually-impaired persons what is around them. If the smartphone is pointed at a park, the camera app can describe how the scene looks like.

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

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

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

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

Although the truth is that only one in 10 people with disabilities globally has access to technologies and products that can assist them. And according to Nadella, it is essential for us to figure out how to empower more people.


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

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

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