With AI to More Inclusion

With AI to more inclusion

Online shopping for blind people or Alzheimer’s testing in the payment app: artificial intelligence takes accessibility to a new level.

Digitisation can make a major contribution to independence and quality of life well into old age. Thanks to online shopping and digital services, older people with physical disabilities nowadays manage their everyday lives much more comfortably. Social networks, e-mails or video telephony programs, in turn, help combat social isolation in old age.

If seniors are “offline” these days, it is often due to the complexity of the Internet. That’s the reason given by 42 percent of the 3,000 people over the age of 55 surveyed by cybersecurity company Avast in 2022 about their Internet behavior. Therefore, accessibility initiatives need to radically reduce complexity. Here, it comes down to integrating features that are kept simple, such as larger fonts, into websites or apps on the one hand, and complex, target-group-specific applications on the other.

Cab app for seniors – intuitive and on the spot

Mobility is an important pillar of social participation. In regions without a tightly meshed transportation network, people without cars rely on alternative transportation services, such as ride-hailing. However, for older people, many of the relevant ride-hailing apps are not user-friendly to operate.

Chinese navigation platform Amap, a subsidiary of Alibaba Cloud, has worked with the China Aging Development Foundation to greatly simplify ride-hailing. A total of more than 2,500 ride-hailing stations have been set up in 20 cities across China – easy to access as they are located near apartment complexes or bus stations. There, highly visible QR codes are attached. If seniors need a ride, all they have to do is scan the QR code with their smartphone and they’ll be directed to a page where they have to press a flashing button. The app does the rest – without cumbersome clicking through menus.

AI app supports Alzheimer’s pre-screening

Even if older people are still hesitant about jumping into the digital world, seniors are currently the fastest-growing group on the web – one in three Germans over the age of 80 already uses the Internet. Web portals and apps represent a valuable touchpoint to the aging target group – for example, in Alzheimer’s research. Many people shy away from going to the doctor, out of shame or because they don’t notice the first signs of dementia themselves.

In Germany and Europe, apps for early detection of Alzheimer’s are still in their infancy. In China, however, they have already become part of everyday life for many seniors: For example, seniors can use a cell phone app to answer cognitive tests in speech form and complete the classic clock test. This takes just ten minutes. The AI-powered app makes a preliminary assessment, relying on multimodal learning algorithms to analyze speech and writing.

The app forwards the preliminary test results to a medical expert for validation. Within seven days, the final assessment is available. Individuals who are deemed to be at particular risk based on their test results are advised via push notification to contact a medical expert. The AI-based Alzheimer’s pre-screening was developed in collaboration with Alibaba’s research institute DAMO Academy (Academy for Discovery, Adventure, Momentum and Outlook).

Braille to text – in just a few seconds

As we age, vision declines, but seniors are not the only group of people who benefit from visual accessibility. A total of 285 million people in the world live with a visual impairment, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). This target group is not to be neglected in the digital space. With screen readers, e-books and dictation functions, accessible alternatives have conquered the market. However, Braille remains an important information tool for people with visual impairments. Braille translation is highly complex. Previous translation programs therefore require additional human expertise to provide a valid translation. This is where AI in interaction with machine learning can play a crucial role.

In a pilot project, DAMO Academy, Alibaba’s global research institute, is testing a Braille-to-text program based on AI. A combination of Optical Character Recognition (OCR) and Machine Learning enables real-time Braille translation. In this process, Braille text is scanned with a small device and converted into a digital dot pattern using AI-powered image processing. These dots are translated into the romanized spelling for Mandarin, then into characters using Natural Language Processing (NLP). Thanks to powerful algorithms, the translation takes a few seconds. The translation system can also cope with Braille graphics, chemical formulas or mathematical equations.

Online shopping without barriers

Ordering online or doing the weekly shopping with a few clicks, playing games or using multimedia offerings – what most users take for granted is often impossible for seniors or people with visual impairments to use. This is why accessibility features are so important in enabling an inclusive shopping and entertainment experience.

In China, for example, one of the country’s largest online marketplaces, Taobao, makes it easier for elders to use the app with a senior mode: through larger fonts and icons as well as easier navigation and support for voice commands. It uses OCR technology developed by Alibaba Cloud, Alibaba Group’s cloud computing business unit, to make it easier for people with visual impairments to use. The AI-based feature makes image captions accessible to screen readers – of over 100 million images daily. A colossal relief, especially since an average product page contains around 40 images.

For people of all ages to benefit from technological progress, companies need to focus on creative solutions and new developments – and it’s worth taking a look at initiatives where inclusive AI applications are already being used to make everyday digital life easier.