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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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The Ocean Economy: ‘Enormous Opportunity For Africa’

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Recently invited by the Canadian government on a media tour showcasing its ocean economy, I was curious to find what Africa could learn from the maritime powerhouse Canada is.

Our tour started in St John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador. Larry Hann, our guide, explained that the cod fishing industry began in Newfoundland in the late 15th century, when Italian navigator, John Cabot, received funding by King Henry VII to do some exploring.

“The cod was so plentiful at that point that [Cabot]…thought his ship, the Matthew, was striking the bottom of the ocean when it was in fact striking cod,” said Hann.

It eventually made Newfoundland famous. By the 1980s, though, the waters teeming with cod seemed a distant myth. Overfishing by foreign vessels within their Exclusive Economic Zone had all but dried up the cod population.

In 1992, the Canadian government imposed a moratorium on cod fisheries in the northwest Atlantic, as cod stocks had fallen below 1% of earlier noted biomass, marking the largest industrial closure in the country’s history.

Downtown St. John’s the central business district of St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador. Picture: Denham Pons

The collapse of the area’s cod fisheries is just one example of a global trend. After a century of overfishing and climate change, there could be a crisis looming over the ocean economy, including trade, tourism and fisheries, which the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) estimates to be at $24 trillion.

It’s not all doom and gloom in Canada’s ocean economy, though. Corporate and government bodies are working together in many areas to combat this. Institutions specializing in the ocean sector are driving the growth and innovation of Canada’s blue economy.

One such is the Marine Institute of Memorial University of Newfoundland, a center of marine learning and applied research. Glenn Blackwood, Vice-President of the institute, who has been involved in training in Namibia and Tanzania, said it’s necessary to start at entry-level jobs. “You can’t be captain the first day on the ships,” he explained, “but you train them to a very high level.”

“There is work to be done,” Blackwood continues, “because Africa has always been looked at as land-based.” This is despite the fact that “there’s enormous opportunity for Africa in the blue economy”, though Africa can only take advantage of this through investing in people.

“It’s the best investment you can make – if you invest in the people, then the oil and gas or fisheries resources… goes to the people,” he adds.

Nova Scotia is one of eastern Canada’s maritime provinces.

The commercial fishing industry here also has a history spanning centuries, and the ocean lapping its shores still shapes the local economy. Nova Scotia has in excess of 300 ocean companies, together employing over 35,000.

Explains Mayor Mike Savage of Nova Scotia’s capital Halifax: “Be it through ocean tech, fisheries, aquaculture, ship-building, ocean observation, marine-centered defence or transportation… [the ocean economy] runs deeply through our economy and culture.”

This is evidently the case, as Nova Scotia, and more broadly, Canada’s Atlantic regions, have consistently been leading ocean technology advancements for over a century. Some of these include industry-shifting inventions such as the variable pitch propeller and kerosene, which became the lighting source for ships in 1846.

It is on the back this history that they have developed institutions such as the Centre for Ocean Ventures and Entrepreneurship (COVE), an ocean technology business park that brings together people, ideas, industry and research. Their tenants include big corporations, such as IBM and Lockheed Martin, as well as startups and small entrepreneurs.

But Jim Hanlon, CEO of COVE, says one of the biggest obstacles relates to collaboration.

“There are three levels of government involved… one of the biggest challenges is getting them all to move at the same time.” Undoubtedly, this will also hold true for the African context. Cooperation will be vital in taking full advantage of our blue economy. He posits that, “you need a champion; you need someone who believes in this very strongly”.

One of their champions is Canada’s Ocean Supercluster, an industry-led collaboration focused on building ocean-related business activities, research capacity and technological expertise. One of their mandates is building a stronger ocean network, creating an ecosystem where all players achieve economic and sustainable prosperity.

Ross Arsenault, Co-Founder of Ashored Innovations, a tenant at COVE displaying their ropeless fishing solution. Picture: Denham Pons

Kendra MacDonald, CEO of Canada’s Ocean Supercluster, saw the many industries such as “shipping, defence, aquaculture, fisheries, natural health products”, share similar challenges, as they all do business in the ocean in silos. These shared challenges are around cost and risk. “The communication costs on water is still greater than on land,” she says.

Given that 38 of 54 countries are coastal, there’s potential for Africa to harness its vast coastline. My takeaway from Canada was that innovation can only be born from a foundation of skills and knowledge. Creating a network between the private sector, government and academia is vital.

There aren’t cookie-cutter solutions we can lift from Canada. We can, however, look at the methods they used to create a more efficient ocean economy sector, and investigate how it can be applied to Africa’s maritime context.

– Denham Pons is head of East Africa for the ABN Group.

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Data Is The New Gold

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The city of Johannesburg was established in 1886 after the discovery of gold. Gold is a mineral that has been deemed valuable for thousands of years. It does not rust and it is malleable.

Gold has been used in jewelry as well as in the semiconductor industry to build electronic circuits. You can bury gold for hundreds of years and the worst it can get is accumulate dust.

Because of its durability, gold has been used to store value in the form of money. In many countries, printed and minted money used to be linked to stored gold, which was reserved in the central bank. This way, central banks used to print as much money as they had gold reserves. There had been many attempts to move away from the gold standard beginning in the United Kingdom in the 1920s.

READ MORE | The 4IR Strategy To Move Forward

However, the first successful move from the gold standard was in the 1970s during the Nixon Administration in America.

At this time, the United States (US) ran out of gold and moved from the gold standard and floated the US dollar. Floated currency is regulated by the laws of demand and supply and is closely linked to the economic productivity of a country.

The idea of gold as the most important economic asset has passed. Instead of entrepreneurs going to California to look for gold, as they did in the past, they now go to Silicon Valley to create companies that exploit the acquisition and sharing of data.

Facebook is one such company that has connected the world and expanded our friendships – although, in my opinion, it lowered the quality of those friendships.

Facebook’s most valuable asset is not the software that connects people, which can easily be replicated, but the data of the over two billion active users it connects.

The most valuable asset of Uber, the ride-hailing service that does not own a single taxi, is the data of the people who use it. The prime asset of Google, the largest library, which owns no physical library, is the index that takes customers to their desired websites.

Therefore, the new valuable asset is not gold but it is data. Data has become the new gold! With a population of 1.3 billion people and a total purchasing power parity gross domestic product (GDP) of $6.74 trillion, the population of Africa is growing at the rate of 2.6%.

Much of Africa’s demographic is youthful. Much of this population is increasingly connected to the internet.

In 2017, Facebook had 170 million subscribers, which constitutes approximately 15% of the total population of Africa and this subscription is growing. Companies such as Google reportedly give accounts in exchange of subscriber data. These companies have been reported to have sold this data to entities such as advertisers, political parties etc. The exchange of personal data for an account is unfair trade because the value of personal data is far greater than the value of an account. 

READ MORE | Big Data And Smart Farmers For Africa’s Agricultural Transformation

What do we do to commercialize the vast African database?

Firstly, we need to develop technological capacity to gather, process and monetize the African database. To achieve these, we ought to improve and expand our educational institutions, paying attention to the development of programs in data science. We need to embed data science subjects such as data analytics and software engineering into primary, secondary and tertiary education.

Governments and the African Union ought to expand projects such as the Deep Learning Indaba as well as the African Institute of Mathematical Sciences that are developing mathematics, machine learning and artificial intelligence expertise in Africa.

To gather data, we need to politically organize ourselves to create economies of scale. Regionally, organizations such as the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) should create regional data banks that collect, protect and store regional data.

 Continentally, the African Union should coordinate data gathering and develop data protection policies. We need to create laws and policies that regulate data nationally, regionally and continentally.

– Tshilidzi Marwala is a professor and Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg. He deputizes President Cyril Ramaphosa on the South African Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

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Everything You Need To Know About The Future Of Pesticides And Bees

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Seeing a bee in the city often results in panicked humans running away out of fear of being stung. But the bees are likely less interested in humans than they are in the wildflowers they’re circling around, which are likely a safe and pesticide-free place for the bees to feed. Contrary to what we might assume, researchers have found that urban bees tend to live healthier lives than rural ones — they reproduce more, have more food stores, encounter fewer parasites and live longer.

Pesticides are a tricky topic — while they are great for the crops they are meant to protect, they harm the bees that agriculture relies on. Their use sparked debate at the Forbes 2019 AgTech Summit, where beekeepers discussed the impact of these chemicals for bees, and the potential research still needed to understand their effects, and how technology, urban settings and regulation will affect the future of pollinators. Here’s everything they said — and you need to know — about how pesticides affect bees.

What are pesticides, and how do they affect bees?

Farmers have traditionally used pesticides to control pests like weeds, insects, mold and mildew and animals like rats and mice, according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. But they weren’t supposed to affect bees, who are critical to our food system — their pollination impacts every third bite of our food, according to the Pesticide Action Network, a nonprofit that challenges pesticide use in farming.

The most harmful chemicals to bees are known as neonicotinoid pesticides. Scientists have found that bees can be poisoned by flying through a field sprayed with the chemicals, but usually bees find harm through drinking contaminated pollen, nectar and water over time, according to PAN. Exposure to these pesticides can detrimental harm to bees over time, weakening their immune systems, shortening their adult life cycle and increasing their disorientation, and could be a cause for Colony Collapse Disorder. While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency banned 12 types of neonicotinoids in May — from companies Syngenta, Valent and Bayer — there are still 47 more types on the market. 

Can technology help with pesticides use?

There’s lots of startups looking into technology to change pesticides use and how we define them, especially in Europe, said Dr. Fiona Edwards Murphy, co-founder and CEO of ApisProtect. Her company, based in Ireland, utilizes machine learning to gather data about bee hive health. But Carly Stein, founder of Beekeeper’s Naturals, said that to completely rely on these new solutions for pesticides wouldn’t necessarily be the right solution. “To think there is going to be a pesticide outlet that’s not going to be damaging in some way, shape or form is just a little bit naive,” Stein says.

If anything, removing pesticides all together could mean growers would have to resort back to older methods of pest control that could potentially be more harmful to the bees, says Stein, who was listed on Forbes’ 2019 30 Under 30. Instead, there should be further research into how pesticides interact with other chemicals, and the subsequent effect on bees. Her company — whose mission is to reinvent the medicine cabinet with bee-based products —outsources its production to regions with no pesticides use like Canada, and conducts third-party pesticides testing on all its raw materials to produce its organic products.

pollination panel agtech
From left to right: Moderator Chloe Sorvino, Timothy “Paule” Jackson, Dr. Fiona Edwards Murphy, Carly Stein and Ellie Symes speak about pollination at the 2019 Forbes AgTech Summit.MATT KANG FOR FORBES

How can urban beekeeping help?

But there are locations that are more sustainable for beekeeping, though, and they might not be where you predict. Timothy “Paule” Jackson’s nonprofit, Detroit Hives, builds urban bee farms in abandoned lots in Detroit, Michigan. By planting wildflowers, it provides bees a safe place to feed with little to no pesticides, Jackson said. “We have so many bees where wildflowers are sprouting, and we’re not spraying any chemicals on these wildflowers that they are actually boosting the native bee population,” Jackson says.

Stein mentioned that urban bees are often healthier than wild bees because of urban bee farms like Detroit Hives. While she loves meeting urban beekeepers, the issue is that there aren’t enough of them to sustain commercial production in the U.S., she says.

How can growers help beekeepers?

While there may be no immediate solution to pesticides, what’s needed is a stronger line of communication between beekeepers and growers, said Ellie Symes, CEO Of The Bee Corp and winner of the THRIVE Sustainability Award. She’s noted that her company has actually started working closer with growers, helping bridge the gap of education between the two groups of agricultural workers. It’s helpful for at least beekeepers to know what crops are being sprayed with pesticides and when, she says.

“We are starting to see the different players working together, the chemical companies getting involved and being interested and that’s what matters,” Symes says. “We’ll figure this issue out, but everyone’s gotta be involved.”

=Haley Kim; Forbes Staff

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