People and processesDigital SkillsAI grant allows people with disabilities code

AI grant allows people with disabilities code

The AI grant is helping to discover how AI can empower people with disabilities with tools that support independence and productivity

In a move to fill a digital skills gap in the UK, Birmingham City University is developing technology that lets people code using their eyes and voice. The university has been awarded an AI for Accessibility grant from Microsoft to build a system that could make it easier for people with limited mobility to gain employment in web development and computer programming.

Microsoft’s AI grant is offering $25 million over five years to organisations that can use artificial intelligence to help the more than one billion people around the world with disabilities.

The solution will use Azure, Microsoft’s cloud platform, as well as Cognitive Services such as speech to text.

Grantees of the AI grant so far include iTherapy, which is improving communication skills for people with autism, and Zyrobotics, which is boosting early education literacy skills for young children with varying abilities.

Mary Bellard, Senior Accessibility Architect, Microsoft, said: “What stands out the most about this round of grantees is how so many of them are taking standard AI capabilities, like a chatbot or data collection, and truly revolutionising the value of technology in typical scenarios for a person with a disability like finding a job, being able to use a computer mouse or anticipating a seizure.

“The research being done by grantees of the AI grant is an important step in scaling accessible technology across the globe. People are looking for products or services to make things easier and AI might be able to help.”

Digital skills gap

As per a report released last year, a failure to close digital skills gap could cost UK £141 billion in GDP growth and the economy over the next 10 years. According to the report, most of the skills needed for the future workplace are best acquired through practice and hands-on experience, meaning experiential learning techniques should be prioritised.

UK’s cybersecurity skill shortage could affect the public sector owing to the mismatch between the demands and availability of digital skills in the UK.

To address the digital skills gap, Apprenticeships and Skills Minister Anne Milton unveiled plans to boost digital skills for adults last month. The initiative will focus on the one in five adults with no or low basic online skills. Free courses will be offered to thousands of people to help them learn how to thrive in an increasingly digital world.

Eye-tracking technology

Dr. Chris Creed, Senior Lecturer in Human-Computer Interaction at Birmingham City University, will be leading the research project.

He said: “People who are unable to use a mouse or keyboard can often find themselves excluded from certain technical professions, and we are exploring ways to remove some of those barriers. This is a fantastic opportunity to make certain professions much more inclusive.”

Dr. Creed and his colleagues are working with Beaumont College in Lancaster, disability specialist Remploy and people with limited mobility to ensure their solution is as inclusive as possible.

Fil McIntyre, Lead Assistive Technologist at Beaumont College said: “This new project could make a major difference to people who may otherwise be excluded from certain occupations and opens up a range of new opportunities to them.

“We are pleased that learners with complex access needs will be able to collaborate with the researchers working on the project and help make sure we work towards a product which has the capacity to genuinely change lives.”

Richard Southorn, Head of Workplace Adjustment Services, at Remploy, said: “Improving access to jobs is of the utmost importance if we are to work towards a more equal society which provides opportunities for people with disabilities. It is fantastic to see two organisations collaborating on a scheme like this which can open doors to tech careers for millions of people across the globe.”

The team will aim to remove the need for a mouse and keyboard by using eye-tracking technology to allow users to select specific parts of code just by looking at it, and voice commands to enter the code.

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