Technology for the blind and visually impaired

I am on my way to Boston tonight to speak at a summit being organized by the Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired. I will be speaking on the trends in tech that I am seeing startups present that could dramatically impact the lives and livelihoods of the blind.

There are already 5M seniors in America that are either blind or visually impaired, and by 2030 it is estimated that nearly 1 in 5 Americans, approximately 75 million people, will be over 65, with blind population rising to 10M+. Nearly 5.5% of Americans between the ages of 18–44 suffer from vision loss, and this grows to 15.5% for adults over 75 years of age. And ~62% of the blind remain unemployed. This is a growing crisis, and any other ailment at this scale would be considered an epidemic which according to one survey cost us $139B in direct and indirect costs. The Solutions in Sight conference is an attempt to understand how technology solutions will aid us in improving lives and lifestyles of this population cohort, including aiding their ability to contribute to the national economy in more ways. The organizers believe:

Until now, the conversations have been marginal and limited. We want to start a new conversation, and we want it to be heard nationally. Our forum, “Solutions In Sight”, is a summit to address the growing vision crisis, and propose solutions. To this end, we are assembling innovators, entrepreneurs, and visionaries to discuss and evaluate innovations, solutions, and promising avenues in all the sciences — from engineering to behavioral science, mental and physical healthcare, and public policy — to solve this crisis.

I will be sharing my thoughts on some macro technology trends that that could be game-changing for this population cohort, and for society at large. There is so much excitement for what may be possible in the near future, and I hope to discuss some of those areas with an audience that includes researchers, students, inventors, startups, and potential customers for startups in this space.

For example:

  • Distributed connected sensors, such as proximity sensors, cameras, Google Glass like devices, and smart/high sensitivity microphones — we are truly collected a ton of data that can be analyzed and interpreted such that learnings and actionable intelligence can be shared with the blind. Blind may not be able to see but sensors around them can ‘see’ and interpret the world for them.
  • Renaissance in the fields of NLP, neural nets, AI for image classification, video analytics, language translation — broadly space often called ‘cognitive computing’ — now we don’t just have big data that can be labeled in multiple ways to train neural nets that run on massive computing infrastructure, but increasingly accessible to consumers for use on mobile devices and such.
  • Non-visual User Interfaces (such as voice UI) — If the last 20–30 years of computing revolved around looking at screens (desktop, laptop and mobile), it appears at least some of the computing can now be accessed without the need to be able to see and read words on a screen. Amazon Echo is the poster-child for automating life, for getting access to information available on the web, and for communicating with people and machines. Couple Google Maps with Clarifai like image recognition software deciphering streaming video data collected with Google Glass like devices, and a voice UI run over Nervana computational infrastructure, and you have magical experiences like what Aira is building (several portfolio companies listed above).
  • Automating our lives — So much happening in this space. From home automation including our thermostats, lights, doors to security monitoring, health monitoring, and general AI-powered communication bots. We all stand to benefit, including the blind who can now reduce dependency on other people or animals.
  • Self-driving cars — SV is incredibly excited about this field of innovation, and this time around it feels so real. If you live in the Palo Alto, Mountain View area, I think it would be hard to not spot a self-driving car at least once a week if not more often. With such autonomous systems we don’t have to see, we don’t have to spend our time driving, and we not only reduce the risk of accidents but also improve overall efficiency in the use of our roads and our time.

There are so many other technology trends that would benefit the blind, some appearing more futuristic than others…but the tech industry is charging ahead, and perhaps unconsciously making more opportunities available to the blind.

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