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Microsoft seeks Artificial Intelligence projects to help people with disabilities

Microsoft Corp. recently opened a call to developers, non-governmental organizations, academics, researchers and inventors working in Latin America to apply for “AI for Accessibility” program grants, to push their ideas and projects to the next level.

In recent years, artificial intelligence (AI) has made industry-leading advances in many major disciplines, including image recognition, speech recognition and machine reading comprehension.

As a result, there is an upsurge of AI-powered solutions and devices, such as real-time speech-to-text transcription, computer vision capabilities, and predictive text functionality, which are just a few examples of technologies that can play a vital role in the everyday life and employment of people who are disabled. 

Launched in May 2018 by Microsoft´s CEO Satya Nadella, “AI for Accessibility” seeks to identify projects from all over the world that are tackling these issues.

Over a five-year period, the program will be committing $25 million in technology, AI expertise, and platform-level services to accelerate the development of accessible AI solutions.

“At Microsoft, we believe that AI can address the challenges that disabled people face and help them live and participate more actively in their communities by enhancing communication processes, easing adaptation to modern life, and increasing employment rates,” said Wendy Chisholm, principal accessibility architect at Microsoft Corp.

“It can help people develop professional skills and influence workplace culture and inclusive hiring,” she said.

The first grantee to be announced by Microsoft´s program was Zyrobotics in October. Led by a team of educators and developers, Zyrobotics is developing unique solutions for accessible science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education.

One example is ReadAble Storiez, an adaptive reading fluency program for students with diverse learning needs, which helps underserviced students who may not have access to speech-language or occupational therapists. By creating custom speech models, ReadAble Storiez aims to identify when a student needs feedback, much like an occupational therapist would recognize and provide.

The “AI for Accessibility” program continues to award grants to developers and institutions in India, Israel, Romania, Scotland, and the United States.

“Today, we are beginning outreach efforts in Latin America, to ensure our portfolio of projects also reflects the diverse needs and conditions of the population in this particular region,” said Chisholm.

The World Health Organization said that more than 84 million people in Latin America live with some sort of disability, that is 12.3 percent of the total population. With a prevalence of almost 40 percent, people with limited mobility are the most common in the region, followed by people who are blind or deaf.

Consequently, the impact on the employment numbers for this population is significant, as the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is twice as high as to people without them, the WHO said.

Applications for AI for Accessibility are accepted on a rolling basis with grants awarded on a quarterly basis. The next deadline for applications is Feb. 1, 2019, for the March 2019 grants.

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