The intelligence is artificial but the sight, natural

By Soumitra Dasgupta


Globally, as per WHO, there are 294 million visually impaired people which is almost the population of the US. Imagine the kind of impact these technologies can have on human lives.

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Back in the 80s when I was growing up, the word “blind” was used rather insensitively yet generously, without heed being paid to finer sentiments. “Are you blind”, was a common refrain that was targeted even to the “non-blind” as a well-meaning rejoinder to correct ineptitude and set the erring individual right. Then gradually, the term was shelved and was it replaced by the description “visually impaired”. One can be stricken by visual impairment, it suggested, but that’s no reason why they can’t “see”, and the most powerful example in history is perhaps that of Homer. His blindness was no deterrent to the visualization of immortal characters in the Iliad and the Odyssey. If you stretch your imagination a bit, you will realize that Braille is a technology too, arguably in analog mode. But let’s dig deep into the digital world.

The Co-founder & CEO of Aptagrim, the maker of AptaI that powers AI-based solutions for the visually impaired, shares with us a rather alarming piece of information. He says, there are 15 million people in India who can be classified under this category. That’s not very comforting to hear about a nation that is hedging all its big bets on the demographic dividend.

While being true to their altruistic vision of propagating the idea of AI for Good, they have built a product, AptaI, a pair of Smart glasses. The integrated camera lying within captures images and relays them to the proprietary machine learning algorithms embedded in the device. The images are then processed and once done, they are relayed back to the AptaIglasses and the user can simultaneously hear instructions through the built-in speakers. The eye, after all, is an input device and it’s the brain where the microprocessor is embedded, in tech parlance so to speak. What if all of this can be mirrored by a machine?

I have been wearing glasses since the age of 8 but in all these years I never imagined that even a super-sophisticated version of my 24/7 companion could house so much of technical wizardry. Products such as AptaI have demonstrated effectively how it can be achieved when you have the right mix of AI/ML models and features such as facial recognition TensorFlow model, emotion and gender detection, image caption using Convolutional Neural Network (CNN) model, and navigation support with voice commands aided by Google Maps. The company Aptagrim, was also a part of the NASSCOM DeepTech Cohort of 2019. 

The only challenge I see here is that these ML-based models work well if they are adequately trained with large data sets. In a real-life situation, there may be insufficient data and instant recognition of objects in certain cases may pose a tricky situation. What happens then? Granted, in a controlled environment that may be a non-issue.

Seeing AI, the free Microsoft app for iOS for the visually impaired was launched in 2017 and is available in 70 countries. The camera app uses “channels,” or modes, to read printed text, currency, and describe physical objects, product labels, and colors, among other attributes. It supports five other languages as well - Dutch, French, German, Japanese,and Spanish. This in itself is a huge bonus as it can now reach millions of other people who aren’t familiar with English. To be sure, even AptaI, is focussed on Natural Language Programming for Indian languages and the company is keen on taking it to the masses. 

Guess what? Saqib Shaikh, the Microsoft project lead and co-founder of Seeing AI, is visually impaired himself, and this is what he has to say: “I get the most joy, hearing from customers about how they’re using Seeing AI.” Isn’t it such a beautiful thing that millions of people can finally “see AI”?Globally, as per WHO, there are 294 million visually impaired people which is almost the population of the US. Imagine the kind of impact these technologies can have on human lives. 

These devices are usually wearables or sit as an app inside the phone so they can “learn” the user. It’s like memory foam, but for vision. Almost all of us have gaps in our lives between what we want to do and what we can. The role of technology, in particular, is to build that super sturdy bridge or at least minimize the gaps. A visual impairment need not be de-stabilizing at all and innovators are working round-the-clock to ensure that afflicted people can lead normal lives.

For millions of people around the world, technology is not a matter of convenience, but a necessity. 

About the author

Soumitra Dasgupta

Senior Manager, Content & Communication at NASSCOM

Soumitra Dasgupta has been with NASSCOM for well over a decade and likes to call himself a flaneur. He is inquisitive and a tad opinionated too and has a range of interests from technology to crime fiction. He lives in Gurgaon with his wife.

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