Opening Up the World to Everyone

Chieko Asakawa talks about the need for accessibility

Chieko Asakawa
Chieko Asakawa

“Accessibility,” says Chieko Asakawa, “is about enabling human capability through innovation so that everyone can reach their full potential, regardless of age or ability.” Asakawa is an IBM Fellow and research scientist, computer science, in IBM Research–Tokyo and knows of what she speaks. But for Asakawa, the subject is much more than academic. She has been blind since the age of 14.

And she’s far from alone in the need for increased accessibility. There are more than 7 billion people on Earth, and about one-third of them are disabled, elderly or illiterate.

A dictionary in 100 volumes

“When I became blind, we didn’t have a device to take notes in Braille; I had to use a Braille typewriter,” says Asakawa. “It was hard for me even to look up a word in the dictionary, because a Braille English dictionary may comprise something like 100 volumes. There were several volumes–I don’t remember exactly how many–just for words that start with ‘s’! There were no text books in Braille, and there was no way I could solely depend on volunteers for everything I wanted to study to be put into Braille. I did all I could, listening to the radio, asking my family and friends to read the text for me. I even made my own text books in Braille during my high school and college years.”

That dependency began to change in 1984 when Asakawa became a student researcher at the IBM Research lab. There she worked on a system to translate English text into English Braille. She also developed a Braille dictionary system that capitalized on computer storage. “We no longer needed to own or pore through dozens of volumes of the Braille English-Japanese dictionary,” she says with evident relief.

The advent of the Internet raised both new opportunities and new challenges for accessibility.

Huge dependency on sight

“Humans are said to acquire 80 percent of information solely from the sense of sight. That means that visually impaired people cannot obtain information which sighted people take for granted,” says Asakawa. “Ordinary people can turn on a PC and shop on the Internet easily. Without sight or accessibility technology, visually impaired people cannot. Imagine what that is like.

“I developed a voice browser called Home Page Reader that reads online content for you. It used to take hours to read words because of my blindness. With this software, I could browse the Internet by myself, and I could check what I typed in, as the software read aloud the Web page. Technology innovation took us, the blind, to a new world, the Internet.”

Of course, it wasn’t quite as simple as that. Web developers had to be educated about both the need for accessibility and how to make their sites technically accessible.

Augmenting human fraility

For Asakawa, accessibility means much more than being able to shop online. “As computers supplement functions that we, visually impaired people, have lost, I believe that they can also compensate for functions that elderly people lose as they age or for illiterate people who could not receive an education,” she says. “We need to build a society in which anybody can use available information and communication technology, which has become the world’s de facto infrastructure.

“My team is working with the University of Tokyo to study how to better complement senior citizens’ declining cognitive ability, and at the same time, how senior citizens can bring benefits to our society by leveraging their rich knowledge, expertise and experiences.” The project, called the Senior Cloud, hopes to take the diverse skills and expertise of several senior citizens and combine them into one virtual worker who is more than capable of completing a specific task.

us__en_us__cause2__visual__364x447And that’s just the beginning. By the next decade, that project–supplemented by handheld computers and big data analytics–could support the elderly away from their PCs and laptops. It could even complement declining memory. Cognitive computing, the latest trend in computer science, will also play a role. (Perhaps the best known example of cognitive computing is Watson, the machine that bested humans on the TV quiz show Jeopardy!) “Thanks to improvements in data-oriented approaches, computers now can do many things based on massive amounts of data,” says Ashikawa.

Better recognition

From an accessibility standpoint, cognitive computing also allows improved recognition engines. These enable computers to comprehend sound, voice, behavior or objects, and their accuracy and efficiency are improving markedly. That ability can complement the missing senses of persons with disabilities. “That’s why I’m so hopeful that things which are impossible today will soon become possible for the blind,” says Asakawa. Another aspect of cognitive computing is higher cognitive processes, like memory, understanding and decision.

“For example, if a senior citizen would ask ‘Who I was supposed to contact at next week’s appointment?’ an intelligent assistant may respond, ‘That’s Tanaka-san and Yamada-san. Would you like to speak to them now?’ Or, as a senior is leaving home, an intelligent assistant may ask, ‘Would you like to bring an umbrella with you as it is supposed to rain around the time you’ll be leaving the office tonight?’” she says.

Much of her current research focuses on how to combine human and computer intelligence to improve accessibility in the real world. The shifting world of technology both hinders and advances that goal. For example, much of the data available today is unstructured—in the form of images, video and natural language. Most of that cannot be fully recognized by current accessibility solutions. “Computers need to have an ability to process these data and make sense of them to better support people, to help them live and work more successfully,” says Asakawa.

And people with disabilities probably won’t be the only ones to benefit. “History shows us that a limited population’s needs hold potential for new innovation,” says Asakawa. “The telephone and the keyboard, for example, are said to be inspired by impairments. Similarly, services initially developed for people with disabilities could be applied to services for older people, and eventually may help solve child safety issues and temporary impairment everyone may face while driving or remembering where you put your car keys.”

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