Living side by side with AI

Tech companies are already sparring for grounds and dominance

By RAHIMI YUNUS / Pic By MUHD AMIN NAHARUL

Augmented reality, artificial intelligence (AI) and holograms are technologies that may be hard to fathom at one time. Not anymore. Far from being the pigment of imagination of science-fiction (sci-fi) movie script writers.

Tech companies are already sparring for grounds and dominance.

Tech titans like Tesla Inc, Facebook Inc, Google Inc, Amazon.com Inc and Microsoft Corp are pitting against one another for technologies that will shape how we live, work and play.

Intelligent devices that can “think” and intuitively make sense of big data will shape the future. Smart cars that drive on their own, deciphering data on moving vehicles to traffic lights and pedestrian crossing. Machines that will rule the assembly line and producing products which human can’t. “Thinking machines” that will assist us to be better humans.

The US-based Microsoft, which is globally known for the Windows operating system (OS) and Office application, already has AI simulators and visual studio tools for AI.

Quietly, it launched a new app called Microsoft’s Learn Chinese for the iOS platform.

And the Redmond the Washington-based firm is banking on AI to change the future of mankind.

One of its products is Seeing AI, an app that combines the power of the cloud and AI to help you navigate your day, especially for the visually impaired.

Saqib Shaikh (picture), the technical lead of a group in Microsoft’s AI and Research said Seeing AI is an example of what technology can do for you.

“Take a situation where a girl is running with a frisbee in a park. We have taught the computer to recognise how a frisbee, a girl and a park look like by showing it many different photos.

“And then, we taught the machine to form sentences so that it can produce one that says: ‘It is a girl throwing a frisbee in a park,” he told The Malaysian Reserve when met recently.

Such innovation gives hope to the visually impaired.

Saqib, who himself lost his sight at the tender age of seven and started to learn about computers at the school for the blind, is leading a team in Microsoft that was responsible for the Seeing AI mobile app.

Saqib had always dreamed of building a technology that could recognise different things. The Seeing AI was developed based on his own life experience.

“Previously, I thought it may be too far off, like a sci-fi. But then, I realised all the building blocks of the technology have already existed.

So, I made a prototype by putting the pieces together and it worked.”

The app enables users to recognise texts, documents, products, people, scenes and image in other apps by describing them. One just has to take a photo using their phone and let the app interpret and narrate it to them.

The programme lets users recognise texts by reading it out loud as soon as it appears in front of the camera.

It scans product barcodes and reads the package informat ion when avai lable.

Users can save friends’ faces so they can be recognised later. Even images in other apps, for instance, emails, photos and Instagram, can be recognised by the Seeing AI. All in all, the visual world is turned into an audible experience.

And the latest capability, according to Saqib, is how the app can describe a scene captured by the user’s camera phone.

The Seeing AI has facilitated him to navigate surrounding whether his daily routines or at work.

“AI helps me as a blind person to ‘see’ things. For example, when I need to read documents at work, finding the hotel room or the conference room that I am attending. It even helps me when I am shopping,” he said.

Saqib admitted that many people feared that machines, robots and AI would replaced the jobs.

But the 35-year-old developer has never felt threatened by the AI. In fact, he believed that humankind needs to trust AI and capitalises the technology to their advantages.

“AI is really great because it can be used in so many things to make life becomes more productive and enable people to achieve more.

“Everyone has something they can’t do and I love the idea that AI and humans work together by empowering us to do even more,” he said.

He said the importance of inclusive design in the workplace and how AI could fill the gap, especially for the disabled community.

“The World Health Organisation has redefined disability with both being the person and to the environment they are in. If I am in an environment that suits me, then my blindness does not matter at all.

“The same for someone in the wheelchair or anyone with any set of disabilities.

The key thing is how we can make the workplace environment inclusive of everyone so that they can come and bring ideas and contribute,” he said.

For him and Microsoft, AI design is about bringing people’s interest to the centre, amplifying human ingenuity, and reflecting the shared societal values and expectations.

He said the mission would be to find the synergy between AI and humans as both have weaknesses and strengths.

“Seeing AI is specifically for someone who is blind or visually impaired. In the future, AI can be developed to provide assistance for another type of disability. In other apps like the speech recognition and translation technology, AI can be used to help the deaf people, or help someone in a noisy place like the construction site, or help those who cannot speak the language by translating the language,” he added.

His team took two years to develop Seeing AI and it is not the end of the road.

He who has been with Microsoft for 12 years, was proud to see the app launched in his home country’s city London in mid-November.

Saqib shared the stage together with CEO Satya Nadella last year when unveiling the app to an audience of developers last year.

The app is now available for iOS devices in the US, Canada, UK, Ireland, India, Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand and Singapore.

The AI will be a prominent force. The Seeing AI is one such innovations. The future will be driven by the AI and Saqib is seeing the future coming now.