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Finance & Innovation

Microsoft Just Pledged $25 Million to AI Research for People With Disabilities

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella kicked off the annual Microsoft Build conference for software developers in Seattle on Monday by announcing the company will dedicate $25 million to improving artificial intelligence for people with disabilities.

The grant initiative is called “AI for Accessibility,” and its goal is to develop technology to better serve the more than one billion people living with disabilities around the world.

The funding will help developers create innovative tools that can see, hear, speak, and better understand people’s needs.

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At the Build conference, Nadella also brought up the importance of privacy and the need to follow ethical principles when creating new technology.

"We should be asking not only what computers can do, but what computers should do," Nadella said at the conference. "That time has come."

AI for Accessibility will provide seed grants to developers, universities, NGOs, and inventors working on tools that will better assist people with disabilities with work, life, and human connections, according to the program’s site.

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Microsoft will select the most promising projects and further invest in funding and resources. The company will also work with their partners to incorporate AI advancements into their services.

Technology has led to empowering changes when it comes to accessibility. Microsoft’s Seeing AI, for example, is a free app that narrates the world by describing people, texts, and objects to people who are blind or living with low vision.

Eric Bridges, CEO of the American Council of the Blind, uses the Seeing AI app every day, according to Microsoft President Brad Smith.

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In a Microsoft blog, Smith shared Bridges’ story of using the app to help his son do his homework. The president added that just a couple of years ago, this wouldn’t have been possible.

And that’s why Microsoft has decided to invest in AI for Accessibility.

"Disabilities can be permanent, temporary or situational.  By innovating for people with disabilities, we are innovating for us all. By ensuring that technology fulfills its promise to address the broadest societal needs, we can empower everyone — not just individuals with disabilities — to achieve more," Smith wrote.

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In an interview with the Associated Press, Smith mentioned that other companies are also working on improving accessibility technology, like Apple and Google.

He also said that this initiative is meant to get more people involved and excited around the idea of creating solutions for people with disabilities from a social good perspective, as well as a market potential perspective, according to the Associated Press.

Microsoft promotes inclusive hiring within the company on its site and has developed ways to ensure inclusivity, including its Autism Hiring program.

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In 2009, the company formed a disAbility Employee Resource Group with people from 10 different networks to represent employees with disabilities like hearing loss, blindness or low vision, ADD, mobility-related disabilities, and dyslexia. The group works with Microsoft to improve products for accessibility and to help support customers with disabilities.

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