There are many predictions that Artificial Intelligence (AI) will displace the human workforce with robots and machine learning. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has a different perspective and believes AI algorithms can actually expand the current workforce by helping people with disabilities. At the Wired25 Summit he told the audience, “There are a billion people in the world who don’t fully participate in our economies or societies. Technology can allow them to fully participate.”
Nadella introduced Jenny Lay-Flurrie, Microsoft’s chief accessibility officer, describing her as someone who will influence the next 25 years of technology. Lay-Flurrie was born hearing-impaired and is now totally deaf. She described a research project that creates a PowerPoint plugin that automatically adds closed captions during a presentation via automatic transcription of the speaker’s words. Using Microsoft’s automated translation technology, audience members can choose captions in their language of choice.
Lay-Flurrie is very enthusiastic about the promise of AI, saying, “Artificial Intelligence is going to just open up so many doors to us all.” She was assisted by a sign language translator that helps her understand what people near her are saying so Lay-Flurrie can respond with her own voice. She noted that the unemployment rate of people with disabilities is roughly twice that for the rest of the population. Examples of other AI innovations for hearing disabilities include hearing aids with inertial sensors for physical activity tracking and language translation capabilities.
Nadella emphasized that making AI systems trustworthy is a “foundational challenge” of the technology. As algorithms for transcribing speech and parsing language are trained on vast amounts of data, they can unfortunately learn to reproduce or even accentuate historical societal biases, such as stereotyping women. Microsoft and other tech companies are trying to build systems that detect bias in data before its used to train AI systems.
Eliminating bias from AI can be challenging, however.
- Google’s Photos service, where AI is used to identify people, objects and scenes, missed the mark on racial sensitivity, or when software used to predict future criminals showed bias against black people.
- Amazon pulled their AI recruiting tool after it repeatedly showed bias against women.
Eliminating bias in AI systems created by humans can be challenging. Even with bias, if used ethically by those who strive for social progress, AI can become a catalyst for positive change.
Nadella has a personal stake in AI innovations. He has a son with cerebral palsy who is unable to communicate. Asked about his hopes for the next 25 years of technology, he identified the most powerful accessibility technology of all. “The thing I’m most intrigued by is the brain-machine interface. The ultimate form of communication would be being able to read what’s in his brain,” Nadella said.
- Researchers at IBM are using language-processing software developed under the company’s Watson project to make a tool called Content Clarifier to help people with cognitive or intellectual disabilities such as autism or dementia.
- Jenny Lay-Flurrie, Microsoft’s chief accessibility officer, was named a “Champion of Change” by the White House for her work and created a hiring program through which the company identifies and trains people with autism.
- In a letter to investors, Google’s co-founder Sergey Brin warned of the threats posed by AI, like job destruction, biased algorithms, and misinformation. He also called AI “the most significant development in computing in my lifetime.”
Quests and Actions (Q&A):
- Do you believe AI can eliminate bias from decisions? If so, why? If not, why?
- For AI to be effective with disabilities like autism or epilepsy, individuals will need to let employers know. What is the best way to identify personal information to leverage AI without creating other biased-based decisions?
- More than ever companies are focused on developing diverse workforces. What can employers do to help disabled employees feel like they “belong” in an organization and are valued for their unique characteristics and perspectives?