Microsoft is committing $25 million to an artificial intelligence program aimed at improving the lives of people with disabilities. The money will go to developers, universities, NGOs and others working on AI fuelled accessibility solutions.
The funding will be released over the next five years through a series of seed grants and investments from Microsoft. The company also committed to improving the inclusive design of its own and its partner’s technology, according to a company blog post.
“Around the world, only one in 10 people with disabilities has access to assistive technologies and products. By making AI solutions more widely available, we believe technology can have a broad impact on this important community,” said Brad Smith, Microsoft President and chief legal officer.
The announcement was made at Microsoft’s annual Build event in Seattle overnight where Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella told the audience “the world is becoming a computer”.
“Computing is getting embedded in every person, place and thing,” Nadella said.
This shift is creating an opportunity and a responsibility, according to Nadella, who argues the tech industry must work to foster trust and “empower everyone”.
The AI for accessibility announcement follows a similar announcement at last years event, AI for Earth, where Microsoft pledged $50 million to promote environmental sustainability.
Nadella expanded on the potential of AI for accessibility and Microsoft’s changing view on the issue, in an interview with CNBC. He said advocacy groups had reached out to him directly and helped him to rethink Microsoft’s approach to accessibility.
“[Accessibility] can’t be a checkbox. This requires us to integrate into the mainstream, and, you know, universal design needs to become something that is much more culturally ingrained in everything we do,” Nadella said.
“To me, [it’s] some of the most exciting impact of AI, whether it’s gaze technology, and what it can do for someone with ALS, or some machine reading technology, and what it can do with someone with dyslexia. That’s now been an awakening for us.”
Microsoft has already developed several accessibility technologies including Microsoft Translator – a real time captioning service, Helpicto – an application that turns voice commands into images, and Seeing AI and auto alt-textfeatures which help narrate the world for people who are blind or low vision.