National Robotarium spin-out to develop AI-powered technology for blind people

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Alana, a Heriot-Watt University spin-out company developing ground-breaking artificial intelligence (AI) software has launched a joint project with the Royal National Institute for Blind People (RNIB) to develop support technology for blind and partially sighted people.

Alana can understand and respond to users in a human-like, conversational way and was born out of research that began at the National Robotarium, a partnership between Heriot-Watt University and the University of Edinburgh.

The pioneering conversational AI technology, a two-time finalist in the Amazon Alexa Prize, delivers conversation based on context, device and location. Alana knows each user, remembering previous conversations and adapts to create a personal experience.

The project will explore new ways to utilise the technology to enhance existing support offered by RNIB. Through its Sight Loss Advice Service, the charity currently offers support over the phone, in eye clinics and via digital platforms. It provides information on eye conditions, legal rights, education, technology and employment alongside emotional well-being services and signposting to services and resources offered by local societies.

AI has the potential to transform the way blind and partially sighted people access information. For example, Alana is developing a tool which will identify objects and find further information about a user’s physical environment, automating the popular BeMyEyes App, which connects those who have sight loss with sighted volunteers.

Lance Blackstone, Alana’s non-executive chairman, said: “When both sides began to fully appreciate what Alana can do to enhance the lives of blind people, and particularly those who are lonely or isolated, it was a humbling moment.”

David Clarke, Director of Services at RNIB, said: “Advances in technology and connectivity have transformed the lives of blind and partially sighted people for the better. Using the digital tools we have today, like electronic braille, screen reading software and specialist smartphone apps, it’s never been more possible for people with sight loss to lead full and independent lives. As technology continues to develop, it brings a host of wonderful new opportunities. The advent of AI is particularly exciting with wide-reaching possibilities, and we are looking forward to working with Alana to see how this new technology can benefit our community.”

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