Conversational AI for the Greater Good

5 minute read

Conversational AI powers many features that are increasingly becoming part of users’ lives. As AI gains traction in the enterprise, it will be paralleled by increased efforts to use AI as a technological bridge to modernity for millions of disabled people around the world.

This blog is part of our ongoing series, IPsoft’s 2019 AI Trends, detailing what we believe will be the dominant developments and movements in the Enterprise AI market next year. These blogs will be published regularly through the end of the year.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) has proven to be a force of disruption and reinvention for the enterprise as adoption accelerates. On the backend, these technologies can automate complex workflows from start to finish, which greatly enhances the potential of individual users. On the frontend, cognitive AI enables humans to give top-level commands to digital systems just by speaking or typing.

At IPsoft, we most often focus our attention on how AI can transform and grow a business, but we are well aware of AI’s potential impact on society overall. To that end, as AI continues to gain traction in the enterprise in 2019, it will be paralleled by increased efforts to use AI to improve the lives of people everywhere, particularly as a technological bridge to modernity for millions of older and disabled people. AI vendors and providers, meanwhile, will want to further demonstrate how their enterprise-focused products can be used and adapted to serve a greater good.

A Helping Hand

In recent years, conversational AI technology has matured into various all-purpose “digital assistants” aimed at the general public (e.g. Siri, Alexa, the Google Assistant), as well as enterprise-focused “digital colleagues” such as IPsoft’s Amelia. A 2017 survey from Pew found that 46% of all Americans regularly use these digital assistants, with the most popular reason (83%) being the ability to “use the device without my hands.” It’s this inherent ability to access technology through language that makes them particularly useful to individuals who face barriers of access due to certain physical disabilities. According to the US Census Bureau, more than 56 million people in the United States are living with a disability of some kind, which includes 25.4% of people age 65 to 74 and 49.8% of those 75 and older.

Many people living with a disability find themselves separated or disconnected from today’s digital technology, which therefore separates them from the digital commerce, information, community and entertainment the rest of the world takes for granted. The Pew Research Center has found a sizeable technology gap between those living with a disability and those who don’t (e.g., only 58% of those with a disability own a smartphone versus 80% of those who don’t). Some of these discrepancies are due to the fact that the vast majority of self-identified disabled people are older than 65 (a group that uses technology less as a whole); however, even within this group there is a notable technology-use gap between those with disabilities and those without. For example, only 50% of older people with a disability report owning a computer versus 66% of older people with no disability. Among all age groups, 67% of those with a disability reported owning a computer versus 84% among those without.

Digital technology is a vital link to modern services and information, and those who can’t access technology due to a disability are therefore placed at a considerable disadvantage. The good news is that conversational UIs can help bridge the accessibility gap.

In a recent article in The Atlantic, one author described how the conversational interface of the Amazon Echo had been a “revelation” for his father who had been legally blind since age 18. Notably, the author describes how the Echo had allowed his father to bypass both the keyboard/mouse and mobile/touch-screen UI paradigms, and jump straight into a truly “natural” interface:

[E]very other supposedly obvious technical interface has proved to require some prior knowledge or familiarity. People had to be trained to operate a mouse, for example; direct control of a cursor was awkward until it became habitual. The touch screen built on the mouse, replacing the pointer with the finger. Its accompanying gestures — flicking through a feed or pinch-zooming a map or swiping right on a love interest — have come to feel like second nature. But none of them are actually natural.

Voice assistants appear to bypass that legacy, offering hands-free operation for able-bodied folk and new accessibility for those with limited mobility or dexterity.

The author goes on to explain that the Echo was far more useful than even “a screen reader,” which assists people who have trouble seeing a computer screen. His father, now 82, suffers from arthritis as well, which makes even screen readers unusable. Conversational UIs promise to add a new dimension of accessibility for those who are fully or partially blind a number that includes 39 million people around the world according to the World Health Organization (PDF) as well as the millions of people who don’t have full use of their hands to access touch-based UIs.

Open Access Under the Law

Conversational technologies will provide people with various disabilities with 24/7 access to services from the comfort of their own home, and through the familiarity of their own device. Notably, automated conversational interfaces can connect users to personalized information that might otherwise be inaccessible without such AI technology.

Microsoft recently committed $25 million to its AI for Accessibility program, which was created to “empower people with disabilities with tools that support independence and productivity,” and similar initiatives have been undertaken by vendors. While these initiatives are primarily non-profit endeavors, vendors also are stepping up to sell into what some view as a perpetually underserved consumer market segment. The US government predicts that, as a group, the domestic disabled community has $175 billion in discretionary spending, which is “more than four times the spending power of tweens (age 8-14), a demographic sought after by businesses.”

Aside from the humanitarian and business reasons for enterprises to market conversational technologies, there legal ones as well, and others could be emerging. In 1990, the United States passed the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including public and private places that are open to the general public. This law is constantly updated to accommodate for advances in technology.

The DOJ, which enforces the ADA, has made no official statements recently regarding conversational interfaces. However, the DOJ in the past has acknowledged that access to these technologies would be critical for ADA compliance in the future. During a 2010 Congressional hearing, a DOJ representative stated: “Ensuring that people with disabilities have a full and equal opportunity to access the benefits of emerging technologies is an essential part of our disability rights enforcement.”

More recently, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) through its Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) developed requirements for public Web services to adhere a set of specific standards which are “widely regarded as the international standard for Web accessibility.” The WAI has further resolved to “research, analyze, and communicate accessibility of emerging digital technologies” like AI and AI-enabled interfaces. As expectations of all digital users begin to include conversational elements, companies should prepare themselves for the legal issues related to the inclusion of conversational AI.

Ending Isolation

As populations around the world are increasingly aging, societies are facing crises of how to provide adequate healthcare to people in the latter stage of life. In the US, there is an endemic shortage of home health aides, a problem that is compounded by the fact that more than a third of people 65 and older live alone, as do a majority of those 85 and older (PDF). With a conversational interface, older people who may be living with some form of disability or impairment may have access to valuable health information or could easily be connected with a medical professional remotely.

Beyond access to virtual health information and services, conversational interfaces can offer a valuable lifeline to older people who feel isolated and alone due to disability. This is more than “feeling blue” or disconnected from society. Studies have identified a very strong association between mortality in older adults and social isolation.

A conversational interface can’t replace human relationships, but it can offer a bridge to all the services and cultural discussions that increasingly take place virtually. We envision this bridge-building will become more vital and urgent in 2019 as AI technology evolves and expands its reach. As The Atlantic author wrote when discussing his father: “It doesn’t really matter whether Alexa provides Dad with useful knowledge or a seamless way to communicate. It does something more fundamental: It allows him to connect with people and ideas in a contemporary way. To live fully means more than sensing with the eyes and ears — it also means engaging with the technologies of the moment, and seeing the world through the triumphs and failures they uniquely offer.”

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