Microsoft launches AI for Accessibility at Microsoft Build

Microsoft launches AI for Accessibility at Microsoft Build
Programme will accelerate the development of accessible solutions for those with disabilities 

Elly Yates-Roberts |

Microsoft has launched a new AI for Accessibility programme at the Microsoft Build conference in Seattle, US, 7-9 May 2018.

The new US$25 million, five-year programme will put artificial intelligence (AI) tools in the hands of developers so they can accelerate the development of accessible AI solutions for the more than one billion people with disabilities worldwide.

“AI can be a game changer for people with disabilities, already we’re witnessing this as people with disabilities expand their use of computers to hear, see and reason with impressive accuracy,” said Brad Smith, president and chief legal officer of Microsoft, in a recent blog post. “At Microsoft we’ve been putting to work stronger solutions such as real-time speech-to-text transcription, visual recognition services and predictive text functionality. AI advances like such as these offer enormous potential by enabling people with vision, hearing, cognitive, learning, mobility disabilities and mental health conditions do more in three specific scenarios: employment, modern life and human connection.”

The programme will be run by Microsoft’s chief accessibility officer Jenny Lay-Flurrie and her team, who will build on the success of the AI work carried out by Microsoft’s developers and engineers over the past three years. They will do this in three key ways.

First, the AI for Accessibility programme will provide seed grants of technology to developers, universities, non-governmental organisations and inventors that are taking an AI-first approach to building solutions that assist disabled people at work and at home.

Second, the programme will identify the most promising projects and provide these developers with larger investments of technology and access to Microsoft AI experts so they can be scaled easily. Microsoft will also work with its partners to incorporate AI innovations into platform-level services to allow others to maximise the accessibility of their offerings.

Microsoft’s AI technology has already helped to give disabled people access to technology. Microsoft Translator, for example, is helping those who are deaf or hard of hearing by providing real-time captioning during conversations. Helpicto, an application that turns voice commands into images, is enabling autistic children in France to better understand situations and communicate with others. Meanwhile, Seeing AI and auto alt-text features are helping those who are blind or have low vision capabilities.

“Disabilities can be permanent, temporary or situational,” said Smith. “By innovating for people with disabilities, we are innovating for us all. By ensuring that technology fulfils its promise to address the broadest societal needs, we can empower everyone – not just individuals with disabilities – to achieve more.”

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