Artificial Intelligence Must Serve Everyone

Tech companies and persons with disabilities gathered on the 16th November in Vienna to debate how not to leave persons with disabilities behind technological breakthroughs. 

The purpose of the event was to take the opportunity to discuss how new technologies embrace human diversity, and how technological solutions can be designed for all, including for persons with disabilities.   

It is an exciting moment for technology. From artificial intelligence and machine learning to robotics, 3D printing, virtual realities or smart cities, it seems like so-called emerging technologies will soon become an everyday reality. It is critical that persons will disabilities will not be left behind as in any technological breakthroughs.   

Access is a human rights issue; the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is the first Human Rights treaty that recognises access to information and communication technologies as a right that persons with disabilities should be able to enjoy, and that obliges State Parties to promote a Universal Design approach in the development of new technologies.

Blurry view of the panellists. Participants is in front shot

Many persons with disabilities are keen in accessing technologies. Both assistive technologies and mainstream accessible technologies can support independent living, and, if designed properly, they also are a gateway to participate in all aspects of life, on an equal basis with others: from education, to employment, leisure, culture and even political participation.  

In the past years, we have seen improvements in this domain, although it is still far from an ideal situation. Due to the active engagement of the disability movement, and the advocacy towards policy makers in areas such as web accessibility, audiovisual media or telecommunications, there is progress in the legal framework of the EU. Including in the recently agreed European Accessibility Act, which has a very strong ICT component. This progress must now become a reality for persons with disabilities across Europe, and be respected in the technologies to come. As for these upcoming technologies, such as Artificial Intelligence based-solutions, our goal remains the same: to make sure that technologies are available, affordable and accessible for persons with disabilities.    

Organising partners in our event, highlighted their own work in the field of AI and the solutions that are currently being developed, and used by persons with disabilities. Accessible artificial intelligence features, from text description of photographsautomatic captioning, through to inclusive dating sites were presented.

Hector Minto, a speaker from Microsoft, is shown speaking

Facebook, Microsoft and Google all presented their initiatives to diversify their workforce and ensure they employ more persons with disabilities.  

Some highlights of the discussion included:  

  • Artificial Intelligence needs to be developed by diverse teams that include persons with disabilities. Organisations need to assure inclusive recruitment and that reasonable accommodation is provided; companies that can recruit and retain staff with disabilities have an advantage on others in accessibility and inclusiveness. 

  • Artificial intelligence should be developed in a which directly benefits persons with disabilities and should be available to everyone in society; Policy should ensure that new technologies are available for everyone – policy solutions include accessible procurement obligations.

  • Accessibility should be embedded in the DNA of tech companies and as a core part of all technological developments  

  • The pace of development in Artificial intelligence is so face that we cannot keep up with it- being aware of these developments is very important to our ability to engage in the discussions and ensure the developments are inclusive and accessible.

Constantin Gissler, speaker from Amazon, speaks to an Amazon Alexa device standing on the table

EDF will publish a report on the opportunities and threats of emerging technologies in early 2019, and the conference discussion will feed into the conclusions of this report. Using examples of current and future developments, the report aims to assist EDF and our members to engage in advocacy work on new technologies.   The report will provide advice to DPOs, Policy makers and industry on how to strengthen their cooperation. To feed into the report EDF will publish, participants were encouraged to communicate their views to EDF, including through tweeting using the hashtag #AIAccess  

Representatives of persons with disabilities praised the willingness of tech companies to engage in this open discussion

Yannis Vardakastanis, Gabriele Sprengseis, Michael Fember sitting in front of the audience

Yannis Vardakastanis, President of the European disability Forum stated

Technologies should promote the inclusion and participation of persons with disabilities in all phases of life and should not produce anymore exclusion and discrimination. This magnificent opportunity of inclusiveness should not be lost.

Gabriele Sprengseis, Chief Executive of the Austrian Disability Council added

Social and legal systems lag far behind the new technical developments. Artificial intelligence, big data and internet of things are seriously changing our whole lives, not just our forms of communication. Persons with disabilities must be actively involved in these processes of change.” 

Monica Desai, Facebook; Adina Braha-Honciuc, Microft; Anna-Verena Naether, Google speaking

From their side, tech companies presented their accessibility efforts and agreed to consider the needs of persons with disabilities in their products and services. 

Adina Braha-Honciuc, Government Affairs Manager at Microsoft stated

Advanced technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) can empower people living with disabilities to participate more fully in every aspect of society. By ensuring that technology fulfils its promise to address the broadest societal needs, we can empower everyone – not just individuals with disabilities – to achieve more. 

Constantin Gissler, Manager of EU Public Policy at Amazon said

Accessibility is important to Amazon and it’s a part of our product development process. We continuously work to develop and extend accessibility features to benefit customers. We thank the European Disability Forum for facilitating this fruitful exchange on new technologies in Vienna.

Monica Desai, Public Policy Director at Facebook stated

Facebook’s mission is to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together. Accessibility is a core part of that mission and is fundamental to getting the mission right. Because when we say bring the world closer together, that means everyone, regardless of ability. Our goal is not to simply include people with disabilities on our platform, but to create experiences that change what people believe is possible in the space of technology and disability. Automatic Alt Text is one example of AI that represents the future of improving such experiences at scale.  We appreciate the work of the European Disability Forum in advancing discussions on these important issues.

Anna-Verena Naether, Public Policy and Government Relations Senior Analyst added

At Google, we believe that accessibility isn’t only about making our products work but innovating and applying AI to make people’s lives better, including more than 1 billion people with disabilities around the world. Whether it’s support for people with hearing impairments via AI-generated closed captions or commanding your smartphone by voice alone, AI can have real and tangible improvements for people’s day-to-day lives. Therefore, we are proud to support the European Disability Forum in raising awareness for the potential of emerging technology to enhance accessibility.

Wilfried Kainz from Zero Project Research added

Our research shows that AI might be a significant game changer for people with disabilities.

EDF Executive Committee member Humberto Insolera concluded the event by stating 

This event was extremely useful for our work. Our discussions will certainly be included in our upcoming report.

Source: Artificial Intelligence Must Serve Everyone

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