Companion AI: Building voice and vision technology for the blind and partially sighted

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We ask Robin Spinks of the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) to explain how the Alana AI companion will help people with sight loss to live the life they want to lead.

Technology can be a fantastic enabler for people living with sight loss. The stumbling block is often that many of the mainstream smart devices we’ve all grown to rely on aren’t developed with the needs of blind and partially sighted people in mind. And even when devices are developed with inbuilt accessibility capability, software and other bolt-on applications aren’t always designed to deliver the same inclusive service. 

Alana is working with RNIB, the UK’s leading sight loss organisation, to develop the first visual conversational AI companion. There are currently around 2 million people in the UK living with sight loss  that has a significant impact on their day-to-day life. Here, we ask Robin Spinks, who leads innovation at the charity, to explain the impact this project will have on the blind and partially sighted  community.

Investing in ‘voice first’ is a priority

Technology has become an important part of the charity’s strategy and a huge area of investment for RNIB as an organisation. This is because of the difference technology is already making for blind and partially sighted people and the potential for it to do so much more. Voice first technology is a particular area of interest for Robin and his team because of the opportunity it presents to make smart devices more accessible to people with low vision.

“We’re at the start of what I think will be nothing less than a revolution in terms of access and greater inclusion,” Robin says. “We’ve seen in the last few years a huge growth in voice driven technology. For example, everything I’ve done this morning workwise I’ve done using my voice – I’ve composed emails, I’ve sent WhatsApp messages, I’ve even scheduled stuff. I can’t even remember the last time that I tuned into a radio station using my fingers and the dial. And if I want to change the temperature in the house, I do that with my voice too.”

As a self-confessed technology enthusiast, it’s perhaps not surprising that Robin’s use of digital platforms is fully integrated into his everyday life. But the difference he’s seeing with the growing prevalence of conversational interfaces is that it also offers a huge, life-enhancing opportunity for blind and partially sighted people who aren’t as technology literate. 

“Voice is the most fundamental thing that people who live with sight loss can use to keep themselves independent,” he says. “Voice technology doesn’t require people to learn new skills to do things or to memorise keyboard commands and shortcuts – it uses the voice that they’ve already got.”

Seeing the transformational role of mainstream voice first technology for the low vision community, RNIB are working with Alana to use AI and machine learning to create more individually tailored solutions for people with sight loss. For example, our team is developing bespoke visual dialogue features that will allow the Alana AI companion to engage in meaningful, natural conversation about visual content – whether this is describing an image or guiding someone with low vision to find something.

“We want to enable every person to thrive and to live the life THEY want to lead,” Robin emphasises. “This might be being really active, travelling around and having lots of hobbies and interests. Or it might be about exploring interests from the comfort of their own home. It could simply be about continuing to function independently. It’s different for every person depending on their condition and their experience. Alana is giving us that flexibility to individualise each person’s experience of voice and vision technology.” 

Moving towards companion AI

With Alana’s team of AI experts, RNIB is now exploring how voice and vision technology can open up a whole new level of accessibility for people who are blind and partially sighted.  An important focus area is configuring the Alana platform to directly help combat loneliness and anxiety – experiences that are unfortunately all too prevalent in RNIB’s community.

“Every survey, every major piece of research that has been done into the lives of blind and partially sighted people shows the desire for companionship is a huge daily challenge,” Robin explains. “Anything which can reduce those feelings of loneliness and isolation and enable someone to feel more included and more connected with people offers a key incentive for us. Companion AI technology I think has the capability to do this in spades. It’s why our work with Alana is such a high priority project for RNIB.”

Creating boundary breaking companion AI technology is a central part of our vision for Alana. To find out more about the project please, contact us to talk with one of our experts.

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