National / Science & Health

Blind Japanese inventor harnessing technology to improve lives of visually impaired

by Alex Jackson

Contributing Writer

Dr. Chieko Asakawa’s life motto: Make the impossible possible — by never giving up.

Blind since the age of 14, Asakawa has dedicated the past three decades to researching and developing new technologies to help transform the lives of the visually impaired.

Asakawa’s inventions have impacted millions worldwide, and now one of them will receive one of the ultimate in industry accolades. The Osaka-born computer scientist, who lives in the United States, is among 19 innovators who will be inducted into the U.S. National Inventors Hall of Fame in Washington in May.

“It is a great honor to be recognized, one that is unexpected and a wonderful surprise,” said Asakawa, an IBM distinguished service professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotic Institute in Pittsburgh. “I never had any idea that my invention could be recognized in such a way. I hope the award will expand the possibilities and applications of accessibility research and technology.”

Her ground-breaking invention, the Home Page Reader, was developed in 1997, first in Japanese and later for multiple languages. It has become the most widely used web-speech system in the world.

“I desperately wanted to help blind people have access to the internet, and I found ways to render the web into synthesized voice, which dramatically simplified the user interface,” she said.

Asakawa, 60, had never planned to pursue a career in science, but was drawn in by the potential for technology to change people’s lives. As a child, she’d always dreamed of becoming an Olympic athlete, but after injuring her left eye on the side of a swimming pool at the age of 11, she began losing her sight. By 14, she was blind.

Asakawa recalled how she had to rely on her two brothers to read her school textbooks out loud while she transcribed them into braille.

“It was hard and not much fun, and I just wanted to be independent,” said the scientist, who was awarded the Medal with Purple Ribbon by the Japanese government in 2013. “I was also very afraid of my future, as I had no idea what I could do as a blind person. Without the technology, jobs for the blind were really limited.”

After graduating with a degree in English literature from Osaka’s Otemon Gakuin University in 1982, Asakawa began a two-year computer programming course for visually impaired people. She later worked as a visiting researcher at IBM Tokyo, where her first foray into accessibility research had a major impact on her career. She joined the computing giant in 1985.

“I was really lucky. They were looking for a researcher to develop an English-to-braille translation system,” she said. “This changed my life completely.”

At the time, Asakawa was the only visually impaired researcher in a laboratory with few female scientists.

“I had already made many research friends at IBM during the visiting assignment period,” she said. “Of course, when they first met me, they hesitated to talk to me, I think. Later, I found out most of them had never spoken to a blind person before.”

Asakawa’s early research efforts gave blind internet users in Japan access to more information than they could have ever imagined. Her pioneering developments included a word processor for braille documents, a braille library network, and later a Netscape browser plug-in that converted text to speech and became an IBM product in 1997.

Asakawa, who in 2009 became an IBM Fellow, the firm’s top honor for employees, believes technology companies are more aware of the importance of diversity than when she first entered the industry.

“Companies were not aware of the real issues which people with disabilities faced in their daily lives,” said Asakawa, who earned a Ph.D. in engineering from the University of Tokyo in 2004. It is estimated that 1.3 billion people across the world are visually impaired, with more than 1.64 million living in Japan.

“That’s why diversity is important. When I developed the Home Page Reader, people around me had no idea that webpages could be read or understood only by voice. But as a blind researcher, I was completely sure that the web was going to be a new type of information resource for us and I was able to persuade others.”

Thanks in part to Asakawa’s research achievements, people with disabilities have plenty of opportunities to share their stories and influence new technological developments. Her relentless dedication to innovation continues apace at Carnegie Mellon University. She believes the use of artificial intelligence is still in its infancy in terms of realizing its capabilities, and that cognitive assistance (the use of technology to augment missing or weakened abilities) is no longer false hope.

I believe we can overcome disabilities in the future, but the revolution will be gradual,” she asserts. “AI technologies are already helping people with disabilities. Computer vision technologies such as face, object, character recognition have started reaching the point we can use in our daily life.”

By 2050 it is estimated that almost 940 million people with disabilities will be living in urban centers, 15 percent of roughly 6.25 billion total expected, according to a U.N. report in 2016. The U.N.’s declaration that poor accessibility “presents a major challenge” is not lost on Asakawa, who hopes that Tokyo can lead the world as a role model for accessibility ahead of the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics. The capital has already surpassed both London and New York as the world’s most innovative city, according to the annual Cities Innovation Index.

“It’s going to take some time to make our world accessible,” she said. “I hope Tokyo will showcase to the world just some of the potential technologies that can help make a city accessible to all.” The 2020 Games will be the first Olympics to use facial recognition to improve security and identify key attendees.

Asakawa believes that before many of the new technologies can be deployed, however, both regulations and attitudes will have to change.

“In order to change our lives, we need to implement new inventions,” she noted. “But first we need societal understanding to completely change our living environment.”

The computer scientist’s most recent inventions have faced challenges as well, but are already having a huge impact. NavCog, a voice-controlled smartphone app that helps visually impaired people navigate shopping centers, museums, hospitals and airports, has been expanded to cover new locations in both Japan and the U.S. since its launch two years ago. The app analyzes signals from Bluetooth beacons along walkways to help create an indoor map. Future versions could measure how close someone or something is, identify the facial expressions of others, and even assist with cooking and shopping.

“NavCog enables blind people to navigate independently while enjoying their surroundings,” said Asakawa, who hopes it will be rolled out on a larger scale in the coming years.

Her latest project is focused on creating a lightweight navigational robot dubbed the “AI suitcase.” Her aim is to have the suitcase direct a visually impaired person through airports, offer information on flight updates and gate changes, and warn the owner to pick it up when approaching stairs.

“The research is still in its early stages, but I’m expecting it will one day replace our white cane and guide dog in certain situations,” she said. It will be fitted with a motor so it can move autonomously, as well as an image-recognition camera to detect surroundings, and will also be able to measure distances to objects.

“There are many research challenges to make it real. Autonomous robots in general focus on just a robot, not leading a human, so the movement of the suitcase needs to be unique. We can only achieve this goal by collaborating with partners.” Asakawa hopes to lead the project in Tokyo in 2020.

When not in the laboratory, Asakawa is an avid sports fan and enjoys swimming, rock climbing, skating and running. Though she misses the great transportation, food and hot springs of Japan, she returns often to see family and friends, and for work commitments.

“When I started in accessibility research, I was not sure how much I could achieve,” she said. “I’ve been very fortunate as a computer scientist to challenge technological boundaries to overcome my disability and help others.”