PARIS — The kitchen is long, with a table for breakfast or coffee — normal for a Parisian apartment. And even though it belongs to Christian Laine, an adapted software developer for the French Federation of the Blind (FAF), there's nothing overtly technological about the place. "It isn't all connected," he says. Not like the Google showcase models where everything from the pop-corn machine to the living room lights relies on one vocal assistant.

Look carefully, though, and on the table there is a discreet Google Home speaker that Laine, who is blind, calls to consult the weather or listen to the radio. "Ok Google: play Franceinfo." Indeed, vocal assistants are quickly becoming an essential tool for the FAF developer. "It opens superb opportunities for the blind," he says. "When it comes to Google Home, we are equal to the non-blind."

Laine can buy train tickets and check his calendar with his Google Home. He still hesitates on the brand for his connected thermostat (between Nest, an American company, and Netatmo, a French one) and waits impatiently for new devices like the voice-assistant-equipped microwave oven announced by Amazon. Already he can voice-activate his Samsung television, but it's not yet linked to Google Home. Nor is his electric stove-top or kitchen scale, which read aloud the heating level and weight.

Another FAF affiliate, digital director, Fernando Pinto Da Silva, hopes to to be able to connect light bulbs to his digital assistant. "My partner and I are blind, but I would like to know when the lights are on or off to not leave our daughter, who sees well, in the dark," he explains. For now, though, he finds the cost too high still: 20 euros minimum per bulb, and not all are compatible with his system.

The voice is becoming a new interface to access everyday tools and the internet. "Today, 20% of mobile searches are done by voice," Cécile Pruvost, manager of strategy and development at Google, explained during an early December conference at the National Institute for Blind Youths (INJA).

The consumer measurement company Médiamétrie estimates that some 1.7 million smart speakers were sold in France during their first year of availability. Worldwide, between 62 million and 75 million units were sold in 2018, at least double the previous year's reports. For now, the market is dominated by Amazon.

Google_Home_Vocal_Assistant

Google Home Assistant — Photo: NBD Photos/Flickr

More often than not, every brand of connected speaker or smartphone has an assistant: Siri for Apple, HomePod, and iPhone; Google Assistant for Google Home and Pixel; and Amazon's Alexa for Echo. But soon these vocal assistants will perhaps be like browsers, separated from the hardware. Orange says that its Livebox, which already features Alexa, will also have Djingo, an in-house creation. And the Mozilla Free Software Foundation, of Firefox fame, developed its own vocal assistant to facilitate what is referred to by the barbaric concept of "interoperability of systems" or simply "all connected."

I don't want Google to know all about me.

But these tools are also raising some questions. During the INJA conference, in which Google participated, a blind audience member asked about having his personal data returned before the information is sent to the servers of the Internet giant to be processed. "I don't want Google to know all about me, the person said. In response, Cécile Pruvost said that, "Every user can share or hide his or her history." The developers also insist that the devices only process information when they're asked to "wake up."

In order to short-circuit such problems, the French start up Snips presented, at the CES (Consumer Electronics Show) of Las Vegas, special smart chips that work with household appliances like ovens, vacuum cleaners, etc. Their focus is on "local information," meaning the data doesn't leave the hardware.

Seeing is believing

But it's also thanks to the vast processing of data that Artificial Intelligence is making such strides. That goes for both voice and visual recognition technology. The more data, the more the machine can train itself to learn to recognize patterns. Indeed, some visual recognition systems are now more accurate than humans for identifying objects or animals in photos.

Microsoft was the first to make such an announcement, in 2015. That same year the Israeli company OrCam began marketing a so-called intelligent camera for the visually impaired: MyEye. Mounted on glasses and equipped which a small loudspeaker, it can read text and recognize banknotes or people and announce them aloud. With this device, the data is stored locally. They're pricey — in the 3,750-euro to 4,750-euro range — but in France the cost can be partially defrayed by the MDPH, the Departmental Office For Handicapped People.

Microsoft also entered this market with the app Seeing AI, which has been available in France since December 2017 but only in English. A French language version is expected to arrive this year. The tool is free but stores data to process in the cloud. It can also describe scenes (imperfectly) and people or indicate the brightness level. It is only available on Apple's App Store for now.

This is not a coincidence. "I don't know any brail-using blind person who doesn't have an iPhone as a smartphone," Fernando Pinto Da Silva explains. The reason is simple: Apple was the first manufacturer to include a voiceover screen reader in its devices — in 2009. It did so to access the U.S. public education market, which implemented requirements under pressure from influential advocacy groups.

France also has rules in place that, in theory at least, require the websites of public services to be accessible to the blind. But there are problems still with compliance and enforcement, says Pinto Da Silva.

New rules are expected, however. And for some private firms, catering to disabled people makes sense just from a market standpoint. France has an estimated 1.7 million blind or partially-sighted people. Worldwide, there are around 250 million, a number that could double or triple by 2050 due to population growth and the aging population.

Turning spoken language into written words and vice-versa.

Still, regulation continues to be the best incentive, as Olivier Jeannel found with his application RogerVoice, aimed at deaf people (like himself) and the hard of hearing, who number approximately 4 million in France. "The law gave us a boost," he says in reference to a rule that, since last October, requires large businesses to have a telephone service that's accessible to the deaf and hard of heading.

RogerVoice fills that niche by turning spoken language into written words, and vice-versa. It also features are video sign-language option. The idea came to Jeannel him when was in the United States, precisely because accessibility was more developed there. To date, he has signed about 20 partnerships with business, including OuiSNCF, Allianz, GRDF and Aéroport de Paris. He also helps operators such as Orange, Bouygues, and SFR, but insists he has no intention of competing with them.

RogerVoice collaborates with Ava, a start-up aimed at the same demographic and co-founded by another Frenchman, Thibault Duchemin, who like Jeannel studied at UC Berkeley, in the United Sates, albeit some years later. Unlike Jeannel, Duchemin, who was born in 1991, can hear well. But he's the only one in his family who can. Having grown accustomed to playing the interpreter during his childhood, he had the intuition to develop a tool to facilitate dialogue between deaf people and those who haven't mastered sign language.

"The problem isn't hearing," he sas. "It's communication."

Ava can transcribe discussions between multiple people on a smartphone screen, but everyone must have the application. The service is free to use for five hours per month. Unlimited access costs 29 euros. It was launched in the United States in 2016 and in France just last summer. Already Duchemin has about 100,000 monthly users in the two countries.

"I don't want to wait for Apple and Google to develop this software and leave us to recover the crumbs," he says. What's more, Duchemin doesn't think the app should be limited just to the deaf and hard of hearing; it could be useful for those who want to catch-up with a meeting or follow it at a distance.

Still, like the other new products described above, Ava aims first and foremost to provide accessibility to people who are too often left out of the loop. And provided the right kinds of regulations are in place, and the interest is there among corporations and developers, what we're seeing now is just the beginning of what AI can offer.


See more from Tech / Science here