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How big tech embraces disabled users

PARIS (AFP) – Buried beneath the hype of the artificial intelligence (AI) revolution, big tech is quietly rolling out services for disabled people that it hopes will push a greater transformation for customers.

Apple and Google are leading the field, harnessing the sensors and cameras of their best-selling smartphones that allow users to edit, enhance and improve their photos and audio.

Among the latest announcements, Apple unveiled its Live Speech feature in May that uses machine learning – the term Apple uses for AI -to re-create a user’s voice.

The idea is to allow people who are at risk of losing the ability to speak to type messages and have them read out in their natural voices.

Google, meanwhile, is testing an upgrade to its Lookout app, a program that describes images to blind people and those with impaired vision.

The new version, Google said, will use AI to identify objects without the need for labelling.

The Apple Vision Pro headset is displayed in a showroom on the Apple campus after it’s unveiling in Cupertino, California. PHOTO: AP

Both firms are keen to portray this as the norm. “We try and put a lot of time in, early and often,” Sarah Herrlinger, who leads Apple’s accessibility projects, told AFP during a recent tech event in Paris.

When asked about the process behind developing a product like the Vision Pro – a headset launched to great fanfare earlier this month – she said the idea was “to make sure that, when we are at the point of making an announcement like that, we can say we’ve been thoughtful about this”.

Google’s accessibility chief Eve Andersson makes a similar point, telling AFP hundreds of people worked full-time on accessibility at the company.

“What’s even more important is that we expect accessibility to be a core part of everybody’s job who is creating products,” she said.

If there is discord between the firms’ approaches, it is more in emphasis than practicalities.

While Herrlinger stresses the rigour of Apple’s targeting, Andersson is keen to talk up the way that such features end up improving everyone’s lives.

She described it as a digital “kerb cut”, an idea named after the initiative to lower kerbs on pavements that was initially intended to help wheelchair users but also helped people with pushchairs, bicycles or those carrying anything awkward.

Andersson cited digital kerb cuts such as autocorrect, autocomplete and voice recognition software.

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