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Seven new recipients of Microsoft’s AI for Accessibility grants have been revealed, working towards a common goal of using AI-powered technology to make the world a more inclusive place.

In 2018, when the $25 million program was announced, nine organisations were given one-year grants to work on a variety of projects.

Now, seven organisations will receive Microsoft’s AI for Accessibility grant, developing pioneering solutions for disabled people that help tackle problems such as the disability employment gap.

The new grantees are: University of California, Berkeley; Massachusetts Eye and Ear, a teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School; Voiceitt in Israel; Birmingham City University in the United Kingdom; University of Sydney in Australia; Pison Technology of Boston; and Our Ability, of Glenmont, New York.

Each organisation is working on a different project, but all share the same goal of creating innovative technology to improve the lives of disabled people.

Mary Bellard, Microsoft Senior Accessibility Architect, commented: “What stands out the most about this round of grantees is how so many of them are taking standard AI capabilities, like a chatbot or data collection, and truly revolutionizing the value of technology in typical scenarios for a person with a disability like finding a job, being able to use a computer mouse or anticipating a seizure.”

AI for Accessibility has three focus areas: communication and connection; employment; and daily life.

John Robinson of Our Ability, who was born without the extensions of his arms or legs, has experienced all three of these areas, after struggling to find the right job for years. From this, he decided to try to find a way to improve the process of finding the right job for people who have disabilities.

He founded Our Ability in 2011 to bring businesses with employment opportunities together with disabled people searching for jobs.

Now, with the AI for Accessibility grant, and working with students from Syracuse University, Our Ability wants to create an accessible and intuitive AI-powered chatbot to help businesses find workers, and to help people with disabilities find employment that’s meaningful to them.

John commented: “The individual with a disability will talk to the chatbot about who they really are, and maybe more importantly, who they want to be.”

Another grant recipient is developing a pioneering nerve-sensing wearable to control digital devices using small, micro-movements of the hands and arms.

Dexter Ang was growing more frustrated as he watched his mother deal with the indignities of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). She deteriorated over time, unable to use utensils to eat, unable to dress herself, and unable to manoeuvre the mouse to her laptop.

“I asked her when the last time was that she had read a book, and she said six weeks — because she couldn’t click a mouse,” Dexter said. “That just made me tremendously sad, because that was one of the only things that she could still enjoy, and that was just gone.”

Dexter then spent months meeting with experts about existing technologies to see if there were any that could help his mother. He found that a lot of the existing tech was complicated or poorly designed, which led him to this question: What if a person could use their nerve signals to help control a mouse?

This led to Dexter co-founding Pison Technology. The company, one of the AI for Accessibility grantees, is developing a nerve-sensing wearable to control digital devices using small, micro-movements of the hands and arms.

The device, which is now undergoing testing, can help improve communication for people with other neuromuscular conditions, including multiple sclerosis. Dexter wants it to be made widely available, around the world, at a low cost, and easy to purchase online.

Omid Kavehei, another grant recipient, is creating a tool to aid people with epilepsy when behind the wheel.

For people with epilepsy, one of the biggest dangers is having a seizure while driving. In some places, patients need to prove they’ve been seizure-free for a year in order to be allowed behind the wheel, which can cause psychological and economic stress.

It’s a problem that got Omid thinking: What if there was a way to warn drivers who have epilepsy that a seizure could be coming, so that they have time to safely pull off the road?

Omid, a senior lecturer at the Faculty of Engineering and Information Technologies, and his colleagues at the University of Sydney – also a new AI for Accessibility grantee – are working on a potential way to help. They have been using deep learning to develop an analytical tool that can read a person’s electroencephalogram (EEG) data via a wearable cap, then communicate that data back and forth to the cloud to provide seizure monitoring and alerts.

“To have a non-surgical device available for those living with epilepsy will make a significant difference to many, including family members, friends, and of course those impacted by epilepsy,” said Carol Ireland, CEO of Epilepsy Action Australia, which is among the groups working with the university on the project.

“Such a device would take away the fear element of when and if a seizure may occur, ensuring that the person living with epilepsy can get into a safe place quickly.”

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