Using artificial intelligence to help the blind see

Monday, 31 August 2015

One of Australia’s most promising young mechanical engineers has helped found a new tech start-up marketing an app to help the blind see the world around them.

Marita Cheng was named the 2012 Young Australian of the Year for her work with Robogals, which encourages young women to get interested in engineering and technology careers. Following that she founded 2Mar Robotics which created smart-phone controlled robotic arms for people with disabilities.

Her latest venture is Aipoly, an app that allows users to take a picture with their phone then hear a description of what is in the picture. It allows blind people to recognise street signs, browse items in shops or even ‘see’ what their children are wearing.

The app works by uploading the picture to the Aipoly servers where convolutional neural networks are used to identify the  elements within a picture and neural image caption generation to feed back a semantic  description of its content where it is read out with a text-to-speech algorithm.

The app was developed at Singularity University in Silicon Valley, California. The university was founded in 2008 by Ray Kurzweil, a pioneer in blind technology, who created optical character recognition (OCR) and the first text­-to-­speech synthesiser.

“This complements the work that Ray Kurzweil has done,” said Marita Cheng.

“In every focus group, people mention a Kurzweil  technology they use to get about their daily lives.”

She says there are 285 million visually impaired people in the world and in the next five years, two thirds of them will become smartphone users.

Her Aipoly co-founder Alberto Rizzoli is an Italian futurist and entrepreneur. He believes that, as the technology is developed further, it could help users identify and search for objects around their homes or outdoors in asimilar way to searching websites online.

Steve Mahan, president of the Santa Clara Blind Centre and  Google’s self­driving car’s first user, is excited by the possibilities.

“The power is in helping us construct the mental picture. And not everybody has the same skill  at creating mental images,” said Mahan.

“Most of us are trying to do that. Knowing where we are is  sometimes more than an address.”

The Aipoly team are now looking for beta testers of all visual abilities  (including fully sighted and blind) from around the world.

Cheng grew up in northern Queensland with a natural aptitude for science and mathematics. After finishing school, she moved to the other end of the country where she studied mechatronics and computer science at the University of Melbourne. It was there she founded Robogals in 2008.

In 2013, she started 2Mar Robotics. Their first product, the Jeva, was a robot arm to help those with limited upper mobility. Mounted on a wheelchair, table or bench, the user can control the arm using an iPhone, iPad, Android phone or tablet, and two types of headset control interfaces, to move and grip objects, and can save common tasks to be easily repeated again later.

Their second product, Teleroo is a telepresence robot or a ‘video telephone on wheels’.  For people in need of a carer at night, it allows a carer to remotely monitor a group of people living near each other.  That way, if a client wants a drink or the bathroom, the carer is nearby, immediately alerted and can tend to the client’s needs. As a result, the clients may live with whomever they choose, and the carers can  be more productive and cost effective with their time. In the future, 2Mar aims to combine Jeva and Teleroo to create a telepresence robot with an arm attached.

Her work with Robogals and 2Mar saw her awarded the Global Engineering Deans Council Diversity Award last year. Airbus Executive Vice President Engineering Charles Champion, who led the evaluation committee, said Cheng impressed them with her initiative, but also inspired them with her understanding that the best way to increase diversity is by creating a clear roadmap for others to follow.

“At Airbus, we are constantly looking for new ways to innovate. That means building more diverse teams, for higher performance and an inclusive culture that builds on everyone’s strengths,” he said.

Her latest venture with Aipoly demonstrates she still has plenty more to contribute.