Blind researcher tests app that lets her 'see'


IBM researcher Chieko Asakawa (above), who lost her sight at 14 after a swimming pool accident, envisions cognitive technology that will some day help the blind to see.

Dr Asakawa is pilot-testing a smartphone application that taps artificial intelligence and machine-learning capabilities to help blind people, people with disabilities, the elderly and autism sufferers make sense of the world around them.

Her long-term goal is to allow users to perceive obstacles, identify people - and their moods - and recognise objects they encounter, among other things.

Last month, IBM rolled out a mobile application, the NavCog voice navigation system, in partnership with Carnegie Mellon University in the United States, in a small-scale project in Tokyo's Nihonbashi district.

There, 220 sensors were installed around three Coredo shopping complex buildings that span 21,000 sq m, providing users with the shortest possible route between two points while avoiding obstacles such as escalators as far as possible.

Speaking to The Straits Times on Sunday, Dr Asakawa, who was at the Nobel Prize Dialogue in Tokyo, said her main obstacle has been trying to convince sceptical stakeholders of the merits of her mission. "We have a lot of technical challenges, but these are not critical. It is our job to innovate," she said. "But even if there is innovation, there needs to be deployment."

This is her next goal in a research journey with IBM that began in 1985.

Over the decades, she has helped to raise information accessibility for blind people by developing systems to digitalise and recognise Braille, as well as a Web-to-speech system.

The invention of smartphones and the Internet of Things has shifted her focus to what she terms "real world accessibility", including how GPS systems could guide the visually disabled.

But Dr Asakawa lamented that many people are not aware of what the technology encompasses, or even that smartphones can be used by blind people.

As a result, she said she has even been asked: "Will blind people really want to come shopping? Is it dangerous? Who is going to be responsible for any accidents that happen?

"(Other people) don't know the technology and they don't know how blind people live. We need to work together to get full understanding from society."

Walter Sim

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 03, 2017, with the headline 'Blind researcher tests app that lets her 'see''. Subscribe