AI offers people with vision loss a new AT Superpower

Artificial Intelligence (AI) will soon offer vastly increased independence and dignity for people with low, or no vision.   AI, coupled with existing Assistive Technology (AT) such as wearable cameras and earpieces, will be able to deliver useful real-time information by speech output - enabling safer independent mobility, efficient navigation through indoor spaces, and rich scene descriptions.  All of this will be driven by natural language enquiries, using the familiar “Hey Siri” type dialogues.
Some real world examples can illustrate what AI can make possible for people with vision impairment.  Imagine you are blind and walking through a shopping mall, looking for Coles. With the “Be My Eyes” app on a smartphone (like the Blindshell phone pictured), an AI assistant could describe the scene ahead in rich - but pertinent - detail.  Couple this with a spectacle mounted camera like the OrCam MyEye, your hands are free to use your cane.   

Your AI can not only speak signage out loud for you (in your earpiece), in the near future it will also be able analyse non-text symbols - like arrows pointing left, the “male female” symbols - delivering the information “Coles to the left, toilets to the right”. 

Woman in cafe using OrCam MyEye to read the menu

The real Quantum leap is how AI opens up the power of inference.  For example, in a restaurant, smartphone apps can read out loud a menu.  That’s powerful, because people with low vision often feel embarrassed asking their sighted companions to read everything out loud to them.  But you have to listen to everything top to bottom and you only hear what’s literally printed on the page. 

But what if you are looking for nut-free options, or fish choices; and there is only a fancy peanut symbol for “nut-free”, and the word “fish” itself does not appear – only the words “Seafood”, “Barramundi”, and “Whiting”?  And, perhaps, all in French!  AI will soon be smart enough to know that these are fish in any language.  And it is smart enough to guess that the symbol means nut-free in this context.
These are not Star Trek fantasies; the power of Assistive Technology has finally arrived.