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Microsoft announces $25 mn ‘AI for Accessibility’ initiative for people with disabilities

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Harnessing the power of Artificial Intelligence (AI) to help people with disabilities, Microsoft has announced ‘AI for Accessibility’ — a new US$25 million, five-year programme for developers globally including in India. The programme will put AI tools in the hands of developers to accelerate the development of accessible and intelligent AI solutions for people with disabilities.

“It is important for us to figure out how to empower more people. It has been a personal passion of mine to help people suffering with disabilities like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and autism,” Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said at ‘Build 2018,’ the company’s annual developers’ conference.

“AI for Accessibility is a grand programme for the researchers, NGOs and developers — providing them with platform technologies so that they can help over one billion people with disabilities,” Nadella added.

Only one in 10 people with disabilities globally has access to assistive technologies and products. Meanwhile, several Microsoft applications are currently helping people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing with real-time captioning of conversations.

In India, students are creating AI and Machine Learning (ML)-based apps with the help from Microsoft.

‘Practikality’ app, developed by Amity International School, Gurugram, is one such ML-based assistant to help the differently-abled communicate efficiently.

“It is very interesting to see that students are applying the AI technology in different ways in several use cases, helping us in industries like healthcare and education,” said Anant Maheshwari, President, Microsoft India.

The tech giant last year hosted its first ‘Accessibility Summit’ in India. The summit featured unique technology-based projects that empower people with disabilities. These included innovations from non-profit organisations, assistive technologies developed by partners as well as Microsoft solutions.

The ‘AI for Accessibility’ programme will be run by Microsoft Accessibility team and its leader Jenny Lay-Flurrie who is Chief Accessibility Officer.

“By making AI solutions more widely available, we believe technology can have a broad impact on this important community,” said Microsoft President Brad Smith.

“AI advances like 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,” Smith reiterated.

To begin with, the programme will provide seed grants of technology to developers, universities, non-governmental organisations and inventors.

“Next, we will identify the projects that show the most promise and make larger investments of technology and access to Microsoft AI experts to help bring them to scale. Thirdly, as we infuse AI and inclusive design across our offerings, we will help our partners incorporate AI innovations into platform level services to empower others to maximise the accessibility of their offerings,” Smith informed.

Helpicto, an application that turns voice commands into images, is enabling children in France with autism to better understand situations and communicate with others.

‘Seeing AI’ and auto alt-text features are helping narrate the world for people who are blind or low vision. Microsoft last year introduced ‘AI for Earth’ — a comprehensive programme to apply AI towards unlocking solutions to climate, water, agriculture and the biodiversity issues.

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