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Software developers have responded favorably to Microsoft's push for responsible computing and the ethical use of artificial intelligence technology.
The AI for Accessibility program is a $25 million, five-year effort to promote the development of AI applications for more than one billion people with disabilities worldwide. It consists of grants and investments for developers who create innovative AI apps for the disabled to run on the Microsoft Azure cloud.
"Just like with good user experience and UI, we need good AI," Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said in his keynote speech at the recent Microsoft Build conference. "We need to make this a first-class engineering discipline where the choices that we make can be good choices for our future."
AI apps to improve lives
Microsoft hopes the AI for Accessibility program will generate applications that use AI to help blind, deaf or autistic people better communicate. At Build, Microsoft demonstrated how a deaf employee could better participate in meetings with the real-time transcription capabilities enabled by the company's AI services. Other Microsoft technologies that could help developers build accessibility apps include the Microsoft Bot Framework, Microsoft Conversational AI tools, cognitive services in Azure Search and prebuilt models for speech, text and computer vision.
Magenic, a software development shop in St. Louis Park, Minn., wants to build apps with AI to improve the lives of users, and includes those with disabilities, said Rockford "Rocky" Lhotka, Magenic's CTO.
"Sometimes [our] software is fairly run-of-the-mill business software. Sometimes it is part of a solution that has direct impact on making people's lives better in big or small ways," he said. "When you get to work on a project that makes people's lives better, that's amazingly rewarding."
Lhotka has a personal interest in this initiative. Two years ago he underwent a surgical procedure with what doctors told him was a 15% chance he'd be partially paralyzed. Fortunately, that did not happen, but it got him to think about how technology and software can be an equalizer in life.
"Something like partial paralysis often ends people's lives as they know them," he said. "With technology, though, there's the very real possibility of people with severe medical conditions living life at a level they never could without those technologies."
Tim Huckabyfounder and chairman, InterKnowlogy
By providing seed grants to many people, the Microsoft program creates opportunities for new projects, devices and services that might not have otherwise been created.
"These technologies can be transformed to help solve general accessibility, transportation, communication problems and more," said Kathleen Walch, an analyst at Cognilytica in Ellicott City, Md. She cited the impact of smart assistants to help those with hearing impairments communicate, and self-driving cars that one day will help transport the visually impaired.
New tools, support and therapies, such as a virtual assistant nurse, will help people with mental health conditions, and help doctors better diagnose and treat those patients.
InterKnowlogy, a software company in Carlsbad, Calif., also plans to develop AI apps for accessibility. In fact, AI for Accessibility just ought to be a $250 million program, said Tim Huckaby, founder and chairman of the company.
"I'd be willing to pivot the InterKnowlogy business to this if I could keep the lights on doing it," Huckaby said. "I want InterKnowlogy to stop building software for the company that is killing the world with cheeseburgers and start building more software that helps humanity. We have done 'projects of ethics' for years. But, I have to keep the lights on with 'normal' work."
Is AI ready for accessibility?
However, observers question whether the technology is mature enough to affect real change or whether it can only offer incremental help.
"So much of the AI-driven technology that Satya highlighted is going to radically transform the lives of so many people," said Theresa Lanowitz, an analyst at Voke in Minden, Nev. "However, it will take a decade or more to create the technology, prove it beyond demos, and vet and test it across multiple regulatory agencies."
When we see critical mass of use and the price drops, it will be earth-shattering, she said. "Until then, we just have to wait."