How AI Could Benefit the Blind

11 Jul 2024

There are times when the human race is on the cusp of pioneering, innovative, and radical change such as the industrial revolution, harnessing electricity, discovering flight, inventing computing, and now developing artificial intelligence (AI).

Google’s Ray Kurzweil says in his new book, 'The Singularity is Nearer’, that we are “about to enter the ‘fifth epoch’ of intelligence, where man merges with machines - triggered by the arrival of human-level AI and brain chips like Elon Musk's Neuralink.”

Kurzweil predicts that in a decade, human intelligence will multiply millions of times over by human beings connecting directly to machines.

With this in mind, the people most likely to be assisted and benefited by AI could be those who are blind and visually impaired.

With Generative AI, blind people can use their phones, or some other future device incorporated into their own body as Kurzweil suggests, to hear what friends are wearing, read street signs and grocery prices, analyze their surroundings and receive detailed descriptions of their food.

AI advancements are significantly enhancing the lives of blind individuals by providing newfound freedom and options. AI assists with daily tasks like cooking, cleaning, and reading labels, thereby increasing independence and access to information.

AI technologies, such as computer vision and text-to-speech, allow blind people to scan barcodes, access nutritional information, and navigate unfamiliar environments easily.

Be My AI is one such app that harnesses AI and GPT-4 and acts as an “alternative to human assistance allowing blind people to undertake tasks such as reading instructions, setting up devices and looking at photographs or works of art without having to rely on another person,” as noted in a Forbes article last year.

The technology “enables blind individuals to scan barcodes, check prices, and access nutritional information, allowing them to explore new aspects of the world.”

Advanced AI-powered text-to-speech technology clearly helps with reading printed materials, ensuring blind individuals have equal access to information.

Today’s AI already revolutionizes interaction by simplifying access to unfamiliar places and previously inaccessible information. It enables blind individuals to explore new aspects of the world, gain autonomy in navigating unfamiliar environments, and receive real-time information about their surroundings. As AI technology develops, it will help bridge the gap, enhance independence, and empower blind individuals to interact more effectively with their environment.

As AI technology evolves, it will likely become more user-friendly, accurate, and accessible, leading to greater independence and knowledge for blind individuals.

While clearly there are opinions that AI has potential and can assist people with disabilities, others believe that the future of AI and disability looks somewhat grim.

There are privacy concerns as blind individuals seek information about their surroundings while safeguarding their personal data. As part of this, effective management of data storage and usage is crucial since AI relies on computer vision and mapping.

One major issue is the potential for bias and exclusion, as AI systems often rely on data that does not adequately represent people with disabilities, leading to algorithms that may not meet their needs.

There are more privacy and security risks due to the extensive data collection required by AI systems, making people with disabilities particularly vulnerable to data breaches and misuse.

What many commentators and experts point out, is that the lack of regulation and standards in the rapid development of AI technologies is problematic, as it can result in the deployment of AI systems that are not safe or effective for people with disabilities.

To avoid this, companies need to work with governments and multilateral agencies, such as the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD), the WHO and UNESCO to monitor the use of Generative AI in specific areas, including education, healthcare, and the workplace to improve the process of adoption and regulation.

Protective laws such as the EU Digital Market and Services Acts, Accessibility Acts and the Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities, will further protect users, allow the technology to remain safe, and ultimately help those most in need.