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How Google Is Using AI To Make Voice Recognition Work For People With Disabilities

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Want to schedule an appointment? Just ask your phone. Need to turn on your bedroom lights? Google Home has you covered.

Now a $49 billion market, voice-activated systems have gained popularity among consumers, thanks to their ability to automate and streamline mundane tasks. But for people with impaired speech,  technologies that rely on voice commands have proved to be far from perfect.

That’s the impetus for Google’s newly formed Project Euphonia, part of the company’s AI for Social Good program. The project team is exploring ways to improve speech recognition for people who are deaf or have neurological conditions such as ALS, stroke, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis or traumatic brain injury.

Google has partnered with nonprofit organizations ALS Therapy Development Institute and ALS Residence Initiative (ALSRI) to collect recorded voice samples from people who have the neurodegenerative disease, one that often leads to severe speech and mobility difficulties.

For those with neurological conditions, voice-activated systems can play a key role in completing everyday tasks and conversing with loved ones, caregivers or colleagues. “You can turn on your lights, your music or communicate with someone. But this only works if the technology can actually recognize your voice and transcribe it,” says Julie Cattiau, a product manager at Google AI.

The company’s speech recognition technology utilizes machine learning algorithms that require extensive data training. “We have hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of sentences that people have read—and we use them as examples for the algorithms to learn how to recognize each,” says Cattiau. “But it’s not enough for people with disabilities.”

With Project Euphonia, the team will instead use voice samples from people who have impaired speech in the hope that the underlying system will be trained to understand inarticulate commands.

While the goal is to create technology that is more accessible for people with speech impediments, the end result is still unclear.

“It’s possible that we will have models that work for multiple people with ALS and other medical conditions,” says Cattiau. “It’s also possible that people, even just within ALS, sound too different to have such a machine learning model in place. And in that case, we may need to have a level of personalization so that each person has their own model.”

Google’s speech recognition technology can comprehend virtually any voice command for people without speech impairments, due to the large data set that has been available for training. But some uncertainty exists about how broadly speech technology will be able to understand and act on directives from those who have difficulty speaking. The Project Euphonia team has only a limited number  of voice samples from people with speech impediments, which allows it to focus only on specific-use words and phrases such as “read me a book” or “turn off the lights.”

Though Cattiau’s team has collected tens of thousands of recorded phrases, she says it needs hundreds of thousands more. That’s partly why Google CEO Sundar Pichai unveiled this project at the company’s annual developer conference in May.

“We are working hard to provide these voice-recognition models to the Google Assistant in the future,” he said, calling on people with slurred and impaired speech to submit their voice samples.

“Impaired speech is a very difficult data set to put together. It’s not as simple as asking people to record phrases, and there’s no data set just lying around,” Cattiau says. “We have to first put it together, and that’s a lot of work.”

Perhaps the most groundbreaking of Project Euphonia’s initiatives is its work on new interactive AI systems for people who are completely nonverbal. Also in its early stages, these systems are being trained to detect gestures, vocalizations and facial expressions, which can then trigger certain actions like sending or reading a text message.

“We want to cover the full spectrum of people—and not only those who can still speak,” says Cattiau. Although Project Euphonia is still in its infancy, it could eventually have a great impact on those with disabilities, giving them the freedom and flexibility to live independently.Follow me on Twitter.

-Ruth Umoh; Forbes Staff

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Where The Medium’s The Topic And The Topic is Topical

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UJ, 4IR, and the CloudebateTM concept

UJ is the University of Johannesburg. 4IR is the Fourth Industrial Revolution. CloudebateTM? Well – it’s a place where really interesting questions are asked, such as: is the academic thesis a thing of the past? Have books outlived their physical form? Are we witnessing the demise of childhood? Will eye-tracking, sip and puff, or exoskeletons lead to true equality of opportunity? Will society change Africa? Will Africa help change society? Will education teach our children what they really need to know? And if so, how?

As 4IR sweeps the world, sending many preconceptions, predilections, and presuppositions tumbling as it goes, UJ sees the asking of questions like these as a fundamental response. And it’s responding because, since 2013, when it first embarked on its strategy of global excellence and stature, the university saw a clear need to take the lead in exploring the applications, implications and potential of 4IR. What’s more, it saw a need to do this not just as part of its positioning as a thought-leader on the continent, but as part of making a proactive and positive contribution towards African society, education and enablement.

A vision of width, a platform of depth

It’s a significant vision, and as part realising it, UJ has been investigating new and challenging ways, not just of identifying the issues at stake, but of presenting them in depth. It sought a way that would bring medium and content, idea and action, debate and initiative, together on one unique platform.

And that unique platform, one that UJ has not only created, but given a unique name to as well, is the CloudebateTM

The CloudebateTM

The CloudebateTM has essentially taken the traditional debate/panel discussion and reimagined it, placing it firmly within the realm of its own 4IR scope, and using the latest live-streaming technology. It is the place where 4IR ideas that have been identified as relevant, meaningful, challenging and thought-provoking are placed before an expert panel as well as an online audience who are invited to participate in real time, online, in a very 4IR way, in the discussion, analysis and dissection.  

There have been seven Cloudebates held so far, and their names provide an insight into their capacity to provoke thought: The Way Tomorrow Works; Digitally Equal; Is 4IR the Demise of Childhood? Questioning the Answers; Obsolete or Absolute? Should Books be Shelved? Adding Muscle to Open Doors.

When thought is action

It’s all about the kind of world we are creating for our children to inhabit. What will the elimination of jobs do to society? Are children growing directly into the immediacy of adulthood? Are academic theses outdated? Are libraries passé? Can technology enable opportunity equally for all?

The digital reach has been immense, not just in South Africa but globally, where it has found a worldwide audience. Moreover, UJ’s CloudebateTM initiative is set to continue into 2020 with further challenges to our received wisdom, our perceived way of doing things. So, if you have any stimulating 4IR topics that you would like to see discussed, send them to [email protected] – UJ would love to hear from you. And if you’d like to see the discussions that have already taken place, then just go to uj.ac.za/4IR, where you can watch, and take a view of your own.

Creating tomorrow

With its innovative CloudebateTM concept, UJ’s pursuit of global excellence has been a most rewarding journey that will continue to develop and expand along with 4IR, and along with UJ’s ongoing commitment to creating tomorrow.

Content provided by the University of Johannesburg

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30 under 30

Applications Open for FORBES AFRICA 30 Under 30 class of 2020

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FORBES AFRICA is on the hunt for Africans under the age of 30, who are building brands, creating jobs and transforming the continent, to join our Under 30 community for 2020.


JOHANNESBURG, 07 January 2020: Attention entrepreneurs, creatives, sport stars and technology geeks — the 2020 FORBES AFRICA Under 30 nominations are now officially open.

The FORBES AFRICA 30 Under 30 list is the most-anticipated list of game-changers on the continent and this year, we are on the hunt for 30 of Africa’s brightest achievers under the age of 30 spanning these categories: Business, Technology, Creatives and Sport.

Each year, FORBES AFRICA looks for resilient self-starters, innovators, entrepreneurs and disruptors who have the acumen to stay the course in their chosen field, come what may.

Past honorees include Sho Madjozi, Bruce Diale, Karabo Poppy, Kwesta, Nomzamo Mbatha, Burna Boy, Nthabiseng Mosia, Busi Mkhumbuzi Pooe, Henrich Akomolafe, Davido, Yemi Alade, Vere Shaba, Nasty C and WizKid.

What’s different this year is that we have whittled down the list to just 30 finalists, making the competition stiff and the vetting process even more rigorous. 

Says FORBES AFRICA’s Managing Editor, Renuka Methil: “The start of a new decade means the unraveling of fresh talent on the African continent. I can’t wait to see the potential billionaires who will land up on our desks. Our coveted sixth annual Under 30 list will herald some of the decade’s biggest names in business and life.”

If you think you have what it takes to be on this year’s list or know an entrepreneur, creative, technology entrepreneur or sports star under 30 with a proven track-record on the continent – introduce them to FORBES AFRICA by applying or submitting your nomination.

NOMINATIONS AND APPLICATIONS CRITERIA:

Business and Technology categories

  1. Must be an entrepreneur/founder aged 29 or younger on 31 March 2020
  2. Should have a legitimate REGISTERED business on the continent
  3. Business/businesses should be two years or older
  4. Nominees must have risked own money and have a social impact
  5. Must be profit generating
  6. Must employ people in Africa
  7. All applications must be in English
  8. Should be available and prepared to participate in the Under 30 Meet-Up

Sports category

  1. Must be a sports person aged 29 or younger on 31 March 2020
  2. Must be representing an African team
  3. Should have a proven track record of no less than two years
  4. Should be making significant earnings
  5. Should have some endorsement deals
  6. Entrepreneurship and social impact is a plus
  7. All applications must be in English
  8. Should be available and prepared to participate in the Under 30 Meet-Up

Creatives category

  1. Must be a creative aged 29 or younger on 31 March 2020
  2. Must be from or based in Africa
  3. Should be making significant earnings
  4. Should have a proven creative record of no less than two years
  5. Must have social influence
  6. Entrepreneurship and social impact is a plus
  7. All applications must be in English
  8. Should be available and prepared to participate in the Under 30 Meet-Up

Your entry should include:

  • Country
  • Full Names
  • Company name/Team you are applying with
  • A short motivation on why you should be on the list
  • A short profile on self and company
  • Links to published material / news clippings about nominee
  • All social media handles
  • Contact information
  • High-res images of yourself

Applications and nominations must be sent via email to FORBES AFRICA journalist and curator of the list, Karen Mwendera, on [email protected]

Nominations close on 3 February 2020.

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Facebook Is Still Leaking Data More Than One Year After Cambridge Analytica

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Facebook said late Tuesday that roughly 100 developers may have improperly accessed user data, which includes the names and profile pictures of individuals in certain Facebook Groups.

The company explained in a blog post that developers primarily of social media management and video-streaming apps retained the ability to access Facebook Group member information longer than the company intended.

The company did not detail the type of data that was improperly accessed beyond names and photos, and it did not disclose the number of users affected by the leak.

Facebook restricted its developer APIs—which provide a way for apps to interface with Facebook data—in April 2018, after the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke the month before. The goal was to reduce the way in which developers could gather large swaths of data from Facebook users.

But the company’s sweeping changes have been relatively ineffective. More than a year after the company restricted API access, the company continues to announce newly discovered data leaks.

“Although we’ve seen no evidence of abuse, we will ask them to delete any member data they may have retained and we will conduct audits to confirm that it has been deleted,” Facebook said in a statement.

The social media giant says in its announcement that it reached out to 100 developer partners who may have improperly accessed user data and says that at least 11 developer partners accessed the user data within the last 60 days.

Facebook has been reviewing the ways that companies are able to collect information and personal data about its users since the New York Times reported that political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica harvested data of millions of users. Facebook later said the firm connected to the Trump campaign may have improperly accessed data on 87 million users.

The Federal Trade Commission slapped Facebook with a $5 billion fine as a result of the breach. As part of the 20-year agreement both parties reached, Facebook now faces new guidelines for how it handles privacy leaks.

“The new framework under our agreement with the FTC means more accountability and transparency into how we build and maintain products,” Facebook’s director of platform partnerships, Konstantinos Papamiltiadis, wrote in a Facebook post.

“As we work through this process we expect to find examples like the Groups API of where we can improve; rest assured we are committed to this work and supporting the people on our platform.”

Michael Nuñez

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