Businesses routinely apply artificial intelligence with the goal of simple convenience. But sometimes, AI means changing lives in wildly positive ways, removing hurdles and dangers individuals face. That's 100 percent the case with the Seeing AI app, just released to all IOS users this week from Microsoft.

What the program does

As Dave Smith of Business Insider reports, the new, completely free app is the brainchild of Saquib Shaikh, a software engineer who lost his sight at age 7. The program uses the camera on your smartphone to capture images of who and what's around you. That includes everything from your wallet to your coworker pouring coffee. Once your camera has captured the image, the app tells you aloud what's in it. Emotions, gender, estimated age--the app can describe it all.

Another feature of the app is its ability to guide visually impaired people to take pictures of text, which it then can read. That's useful for everyday situations like reading menus at restaurants, but also for professional work like reviewing business documents.

Right now, the app only works with iOS or Pivothead SMART glasses. But the hope is to get a version for Android out there soon.

The significance of knowing what's in front of you

Seeing AI is very much about allowing blind individuals to be as independent as possible. But to really understand the significance of the app, you have to consider why that independence is valuable. Yes, there are the obvious convenience and safety elements. But independence yields confidence. Confidence encourages people to try and experience new things. It changes how they interact with others, influencing their ability to create fulfilling relationships. If Seeing AI tells you the person you're talking to is smiling, for example, you have less reason to be nervous or stressed as you continue.

There's equality, too. In the United States, for example, blind working-age adults are employed at a rate of just 36.8 percent. That's despite the Americans with Disabilities Act, which is intended to prevent discrimination. The situation is similar in other areas of the world. In the United Kingdom, for instance, the rate is less than 27 percent. Although there are many reasons for employers turning blind people away, much of it has to do with the underlying (and often unspoken) beliefs that the visually impaired person somehow will create more work for the employer or cannot do a job with the efficiency and accuracy of a sighted individual. Technologies like Seeing AI, however, might reassure employers, offering a simple accommodation.

The more companies like Microsoft develop technologies like Seeing AI, the more likely it is that we'll see people, not their disabilities. That, when you get down to it, is the ultimate vision.

Published on: Jul 13, 2017
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