Talking to Léonie Watson about computer vision and blindness

I recently had the pleasure of talking to Léonie Watson for a section on the rehab Tech Talks podcast which I co-present for the company I work for. Léonie works with The Paciello Group on web standards accessibility, and I’ve met her on a handful of occasions through conferences that she attends and speaks at. She is also completely blind, having lost her sight as an adult due to complications of diabetes (I highly recommend her personal account of how it happened, Losing Sight).

As our podcast topic was computer vision—extracting semantic data from photos and video using machine learning—I was keen to find out how this could help people with impaired vision. I was absolutely amazed and delighted by what I learned, and I wanted to share this extract from our conversation.


Learning To Live With Learning Machines

In my recent talk, OK Computer, I briefly mention the importance of privacy in systems powered by machine learning, and hint at potential difficulties facing Hello Barbie, the new AI-powered doll from Mattel when the wider world becomes aware that third parties could—or, will—be listening to what children say to it. Well, the wider world has become aware.

Hell No Barbie is a consumer campaign to raise awareness about Hello Barbie, and to prevent parents from buying it. They give eight reasons why Hello Barbie is bad, ranging from the right to private conversations, to the right to be free from being advertised to.

I’m not unsympathetic to these arguments. I agree with most of them (to varying degrees). And it certainly looks as though there are very valid concerns around the security of Hello Barbie, with it reportedly being open to hacking.

But I think an outright dismissal, a refusal to engage with AI-powered toys, misses out on the opportunities that they can bring. Cognitoys Dino is another toy for children, but with a sharper focus on education. And I know from personal experience how much my young nieces and nephews like asking questions to Google Voice Search. In the case of these interfaces, the children are gaining knowledge; but each has the same implications of privacy and security as Hello Barbie.

I think we need to not reject AI toys for children, but to engage with them on better terms. We need to ask the questions necessary to create an ethical framework to accept AI into our homes. On, in the article A Toy That Wants to Phone Home, they suggest some questions that we might want to start with, around data, privacy, commercialisation, and social implications.

This is the approach that I endorse: learning to live with new technology; understanding it, controlling it, and making it work to our benefit.