How AI and IoT help blind people to explore the world

At the GHC2017 Dr. Chieko Asakawa shared her story as a blind researcher and her vision on how combined technologies can help to improve the life quality of people with visual limitation.

Dr. Chieko Asakawa is an accessibility researcher at IBM. She has been instrumental in fostering and developing solutions that help people with limitations to master every
day tasks. In 1980s she developed digital Braille technologies that still help the visually impaired people in Japan to access digital Braille books. The IBM Home page reader, a voice browser developed by Chieko Asakawa in 1997, renders the web into synthesized voice. It was made available in Japan, Europe, US and Asia and thus opened up the Internet to the blind across the world – a revolutionary moment for the blind. The same technology today helps drivers to listen to their emails while driving. “Accessibility ignites innovation” becomes more than evident on Chieko’s work.

For her work Chieko was appointed to IBM Fellow in 2009, IBM’s most prestigious technical honor. In 2013, the government of Japan awarded the Medal of Honor with Purple Ribbon to Chieko.

Chieko Asakawa lost her sights at the age of fourteen in a swimming pool accident. She can do sports such as climbing, swimming, skiing or skating and she can cook. However, there is one limitation – she can no do this all without help of others. Chieko’s dream is to become completely independent. She wants to travel all over the world by herself, enjoy shopping and find a nice restaurant by herself. In her latest work she combines multiple technologies to achieve this goal.

For instance, using a smartphone today Chieko can move around indoor and outdoor environments. The mobile app analyzes beacon signals and smartphone sensors. It also recognizes faces of people approaching on the street. Work in progress is the analysis of face impressions which is very important for blind people to become social. The mobile app is based on open platform and Chieko is convinced that it will help accelerate the adoption of cognitive assistance solutions in future.

Further work in making blind people independent includes the development of an app that helps them to take pictures of objects. This is needed, for instance, to train cognitive assistants.

In her speech Chieko also explained "The Medici Effect" described by Frans Johansson:

"By breaking down associative barriers and stepping into the intersection between fields, the number of available idea combinations increases beyond anything we can achieve in a single area. This explains why diverse teams can be more creative than homogeneous groups."

Chieko motivated everyone to see our own perspective as our strength and to make our own perspective to our own advantage. She is the best example on how you can succeed with this guidance.

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About Larissa Auberger 1 Article
I am a Senior IT Architect and a QA professional in the IBM Research and Development lab in Boeblingen, Germany. My focus is on Digital Process Automation and integration, my areas of interest include Blockchain, Internet of Things and Cognitive solutions. I am passionate about the integration of established solutions with new technologies in order to better address emerging business needs. I am a member of the IBM Academy of Technology and a Board member of the Technical Expert Council CR. I am a mom of three kids.

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