AI and the future of technology for people with sight loss

Intelligence Digest

Recently we have read some stories on the developments of Technology and AI when it comes to guiding devices for people with Sight loss. 

Some ideas are far-fetched, and some are more realistic, one is a robotic guide dog, and the other idea is an AI-powered suitcase that guides the blind person to their destination.

The headlines went like this:

1.       Computer scientists programme robotic Seeing AI dog to guide the visually impaired.


2.       AI suitcase tested outdoors to guide the visually impaired.

We will deal with the development of the robotic Guide dog first. 

Binghamton University of New York Associate Professor of Computer Science Shiqi Zhang and his students have programmed a robot guide dog to assist the visually impaired. The robot responds to tugs on its leash. They presented a demonstration in which the robot dog led a person around a lab hallway, confidently and carefully responding to directive input. The developer came up with this idea after studying guide dog users and finding that most dog users do not use the dog for their whole lives for several reasons.

Firstly, a Dog has a working life of 8 to 10 years and there is a space of time while waiting for a new dog. 

He also mentioned the cost of training a new dog, upwards of €50,000 per dog and training can take around 2 years. 

So that was his argument for developing such a device. 

This is called quadruped technology.

It is currently a research project in its early stages and has only worked indoors so far. 

No mention of the cost of course. “If this is going well, then potentially in a few years we can set up this seeing-eye robot dog at shopping malls and airports. 

It’s pretty much like how people use shared bicycles on campus,” Zhang said. 

The developers hope to install the ability to give voice commands and the installation of maps.

(Personally, I do not see us replacing the Guide dog with a Seeing AI robot anytime soon. 

At least we do not have to charge our Guide dog and of course, a dog gives us that other great benefit called companionship.) 


Moving onto the AI Suitcase article, Chieko Asakawa is developing an AI-powered suitcase that can guide people with vision impairment around. She thought it would be convenient if her suitcase could automatically show her the way and she believed by developing such a product Blind and Vision impaired people would get more freedom and go out more. 

The project initially started in the US in 2017 but big companies have joined the project such as IBM Japan, and Shimizu Corp to help test indoor navigation in Airports and other areas.

So, this project looks to have more promise already as there is a semblance of power and money behind it. 

Chieko tried an experiment in September with the AI Powered Suitcase where it guided her to the nearest station from her workplace in Tokyo’s Koto Ward. 

It uses two different systems for navigation, for indoors it uses a light detection and ranging (LiDAR) system to detect obstacles with laser light. And for outdoors it uses a type of GPS real-time kinematic (RTK) satellite positioning system, and it has a camera on its front and a computer inside to process information.


But the suitcase does have its very own issues. 

It has difficulty sometimes navigating from different surfaces such as going from indoor to outdoor and the wheels can get caught in doorways or steps and it can find navigating through crowds challenging.


But at least it does not look too out of place as someone pushing a suitcase is a very normal event as if it was some other form of a device, it could gather unwanted attention. 

People with sight loss do care how they look. 

The project team aims to put the AI-powered suitcase into practical use at airports, hospitals, and other facilities by March 2027.


In My opinion, the Suitcase looks like a more realistic solution and is socially more acceptable to most people. 

It is only a matter of time before more companies get confident in making this kind of mobility aid. 

They can take navigation ideas from Robot Vacuums which successfully navigate indoors and avoid obstacles but when it comes to guiding a Human around the outside world it adds many more variables. Safety is paramount and AI is relatively new in this space. Do people really trust AI yet, especially with all their hierarchy issues and teething problems.


Even Smart canes have not gathered the attention of the majority of blind or visually impaired people. 

So, I believe the trusty Guide dog and White Cane are safe for another while yet, but it is definitely an interesting space to watch? 

We can put it in a similar folder to our dreams of using a self-driving car.

Sent to S Dunstan's from By Gart Long