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What will tomorrow’s tech look like? Ask someone who can’t see

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When I was pronounced legally blind in 2009, I didn’t know one other person who called themselves blind – least of all “low vision” or “visually impaired.” Today, I manage the largest blindness community in the world, Be My Eyes, a support platform where more than 4 million people and companies use live video to support users in almost 200 languages. And though the growth of our collective community is a crucial step making our lives better, it’s just one piece of what makes today, as I’ve heard many others say, “a great time to be blind.”

That’s because in the past 10 years, “sight tech” has taken off. What we might have once called “assistive” or “special needs” technology has gone mainstream – and the technology developed by and for people with disabilities is now used by you, your kids, your grandparents – regardless of whether you identify as having a disability or not.

Sight tech – or more broadly, eyes-free tech – now touches every part of our lives and the devices that we depend on. And it’s not just blind and visually impaired people who are benefitting. It’s everyone. That’s why I’m pleased to be hosting the first ever Sight Tech Global conference on December 2 and 3, to sit down with the tech world’s most important figures in sight tech and talk about the past, present and future of how designing for the blind informs and affects all of our lives. Registration is free; sign up today.

What is Sight Tech?

Inventions to help the blind “see” have quietly been spurring innovation for decades. Often, idealistic inventors create with a charitable mindset – to help the needy or return something lost – but the real technological advances in sight tech have done a lot more than simply suggest a cure for human disability. They’ve created new abilities for everyone, and opened new doors to unpredictable innovation: The 12-inch record, the computer keyboard, and the text recognition software that laid the foundation for the modern database were all brought to market, initially, for blind consumers.

There was a time when a personal assistant, someone to read to you or a car at your door, were once thought of as “special” – but no longer. Today, every device shipped by Apple, Amazon, Google and Microsoft includes these capabilities and more, not as a bonus but as a necessity to compete in today’s competitive hardware and software markets. So whether you use your phone in dark mode or talk to Siri while you’re driving, you too use “sight tech” that was invented initially for the visually impaired.

Over and over again, designing for blind consumers has shown an ROI far beyond helping the needy. Audiobooks, which were heavily resisted by publishers when first developed for blind readers in 1934, now are the book industry’s only growing business. Likewise, coding your website for a blind person’s screen reader might seem like extra work until you realize it optimizes your SEO and makes your website more usable to about a billion other non-standard device users, as well. The world of sight tech is absolutely full of these types of happy surprises; unexpected synchronicities and wide applicability that started with designing for a seemingly small group.

Founded by former TechCrunch COO Ned Desmond earlier this year, Sight Tech Global provides a new venue for those who are passionate about AI, blind tech, digital inclusion and equal access for all to gather and hear from the accessibility community’s greatest thinkers and doers. Best of all, this free, all-virtual conference is a benefit for the Vista Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired which has been helping individuals with blindness or low vision for the past 75 years.

Here’s a little preview of what we’ll be unveiling, cheering, arguing and dreaming about at Sight Tech Global. I hope you’ll join us! Here is a link to the full agenda.

Achieving perfect mobility

For most, the self-driving car is a long-promised luxury. For those of us who can’t get a driver’s license, it’s the key to an unprecedented level of independence. Researchers at Waymo are intent on making sure that, when the first self-driving taxi arrives on your doorstep, it shouldn’t matter whether you can see or not: You should be able to hop in and take a ride.

Similarly, maps are much more than just a handy tool for those of us with visual impairments. In many cases, they’re the only option for finding your bearings – the difference between independence and codependence. Blind and sighted inventors alike have been pushing for better, more exact navigational tools for decades, and today the team at GOOD Maps has harnessed the power of lidar, data and and faster-than-ever processors to make sure that someone with no sight can get themselves within arm’s reach of exactly what they’re looking for.

Join product managers from Waymo, Waymap, Goodmaps and more to hear about the future of getting from point A to point B.

The next talking computer

Since the late 1980s, companies like Freedom Scientific and Humanware have laid the foundation for accessible computing, writing software and building devices that can convert visual information into sound or touch. Those devices were operating computers, rendering digital Braille and delivering audio books to readers long before there was an app for that.

Today, mainstream tech giants Apple, Amazon, Microsoft and Google are creating screen readers and assistive devices of their own, not to mention the thousands of third-party apps for navigation, sensory optimization, recognizing text and images and more. And with this new functionality native to operating systems, established assistive tech companies are evolving, too.

We’ll take a deep dive into what’s next for the “screen reader” – and how new tech from AI to AR, and headgear to haptics are shaking up interfaces and reshaping paradigms across our industry.

Over the course of two days, we’ll be hearing from the accessibility leaders at Apple, Microsoft, Google, Vispero, Humanware, Amazon and more.

Tech that doesn’t discriminate

Even the greatest new tech creates great new problems. And as AI swoops in to save the day, allowing blind and visually impaired people to overcome barriers in their work and social lives, AI can also introduce new biases that we never expected. When training our systems to recognize, categorize and interact with real people, how do we account for disability and a diverse range of functional needs? How do we make machines that don’t inherit our own cultural prejudices?

We’ll also be joined by some of the blindness and disability community’s greatest advocates: people like Lainey Feingold, Haben Girma and George Kerscher, who will take a hard look at access to information as a civil right, how far we’ve come and how far we have to go in the era of AI.

Sight Tech Global is December 2-3 – all-virtual and 100% free. All sponsorship proceeds benefit the Vista Center for the Blind. It’s not too late to sponsor – learn more here.

 

 

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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Elon Musk says Tesla Semi is ready for production, but limited by battery cell output

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Tesla CEO Elon Musk said on the company’s 2020 Q4 earnings call that all engineering work is now complete on the Tesla Semi, the freight-hauling semi truck that the company is building with an all-electric powertrain. The company expects to begin deliveries of Tesla Semi this year, the company said in its Q4 earnings release, and Musk said the only thing limiting their ability to produce them now is the availability of battery cells.

“The main reason we have not accelerated new products – like for example Tesla Semi – is that we simply don’t have enough cells for it,” Musk said. “If we were to make the Semi right now, and we could easily go into production with the Semi right now, but we would not have enough cells for it.”

Musk added that the company does expect to have sufficient cell volume to meet its needs once it goes into production on its 4680 battery pack, which is a new custom cell design it created with a so-called ‘tables’ design that allows for greater energy density and therefore range.

“A Semi would use typically five times the number of cells that a car would use, but it would not sell for five times what a car would sell for, so it kind of would not make sense for us to do the Semi right now,” Musk said. “But it will absolutely make sense for us to do it as soon as we can address the cell production constraint.”

That constraint points to the same conclusion for the possibility of Tesla developing a van, Musk added, and the lifting of the constraint will likewise make it possible for Tesla to pursue the development of that category of vehicle, he said.

Tesla has big plans for “exponentially” ramping cell production, with a goal of having production capacity infrastructure in place for a Toal of 200 gigawatt hours per year by 2022, and a target of being able to actually produce around 40% of that by that year (with future process improvements generating additional gigawatt hours of cell capacity  in gradual improvements thereafter).

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Pro-Trump Twitter figure arrested for spreading vote-by-text disinformation in 2016

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The man behind a once-influential pro-Trump account is facing charges of election interference for allegedly disseminating voting disinformation on Twitter in 2016.

Federal prosecutors allege that Douglass Mackey, who used the name “Ricky Vaughn” on Twitter, encouraged people to cast their ballot via text or on social media, effectively tricking others into throwing away those votes.

According to the Justice Department, 4,900 unique phone numbers texted a phone number Mackey promoted in order to “vote by text.” BuzzFeed reported the vote-by-text scam at the time, noting that many of the images were photoshopped to look like official graphics from Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

Some of those images appeared to specifically target Black and Spanish-speaking Clinton supporters, a motive that tracks with the account’s track record of white supremacist and anti-Semitic content. The account was suspended in November 2016.

At the time, the mysterious account quickly gained traction in the political disinformation ecosystem. HuffPost revealed that the account was run by Mackey, the son of a lobbyist, two years later.

“… His talent for blending far-right propaganda with conservative messages on Twitter made him a key disseminator of extremist views to Republican voters and a central figure in the alt-right’ white supremacist movement that attached itself to Trump’s coattails,” HuffPost’s Luke O’Brien reported.

Mackey, a West Palm Beach resident, was taken into custody Wednesday in Florida.

“There is no place in public discourse for lies and misinformation to defraud citizens of their right to vote,” Acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York Seth D. DuCharme said.

“With Mackey’s arrest, we serve notice that those who would subvert the democratic process in this manner cannot rely on the cloak of Internet anonymity to evade responsibility for their crimes.”

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Tesla is willing to license Autopilot and has already had “preliminary discussions” about it with other automakers

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Tesla is open to licensing its software, including its Autopilot highly-automated driving technology, and the neural network training it has built to improve its autonomous driving technology. Tesla CEO Elon Musk revealed those considerations on the company’s Q4 earnings call on Wednesday, adding that the company has in fact already “had some preliminary discussions about licensing Autopilot to other OEMs.”

The company began rolling out its beta version of the so-called ‘full self-driving’ or FSD version of Autopilot late last year. The standard Autopilot features available in general release provide advanced driver assistance (ADAS) which provide essentially advanced cruise control capabilities designed primarily for use in highway commutes. Musk said on the call that he expects the company will seek to prove out its FSD capabilities before entering into any licensing agreements, if it does end up pursuing that path.

Musk noted that Tesla’s “philosophy is definitely not to create walled gardens” overall, and pointed out that the company is planning to allow other automakers to use its Supercharger networks, as well as its autonomy software. He characterized Tesla as “more than happy to license” those autonomous technologies to “other car companies,” in fact.

One key technical hurdle required to get to a point where Tesla’s technology is able to demonstrate true reliability far surpassing that of a standard human driver is transition the neural networks operating in the cars and providing them with the analysis that powers their perception engines is to transition those to video. That’s a full-stack transition across the system away from basing it around neural nets trained on single cameras and single frames.

To this end, the company has developed video labelling software that has had “a huge effect on the efficiency of labeling,” with the ultimate aim being enabling automatic labeling. Musk (who isn’t known for modesty around his company’s achievements, it should be said) noted that Tesla believes “it may be the best neural net training computer in the world by possibly an order of magnitude,” adding that it’s also “something we can offer potentially as a service.”

Training huge quantities of video data will help Tesla push the reliability of its software from 100% that of a human driver, to 200% and eventually to “2,000% better than the average human,” Musk said, while again suggesting that it won’t be a technological achievement the company is interested into keeping to themselves.

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