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I’ve always been a “dog person,” but never knew anything about how service dogs are raised and trained, or realized how essential they are to the independence and well-being of the people who depend on them. Then my world got turned upside down. My husband, Michael – a fellow IBMer – suffered a stroke during surgery which diagnosed pancreatic cancer. As a result of the stroke, Michael lost half of his vision in each eye, and I became his guide as we fought the cancer which would eventually take his life. While I can never replace what Michael and I had, the experience of witnessing his resilience, his compassion for our family, and his refusal to bow down to either cancer or blindness changed my perspective on life.
The intimacy of facing death together strengthens love. That love persists after death, and the yearning to be with the one we’ve lost helps heighten our awareness of the challenges faced by others. I am fortunate to work for a company that not only supported me and my family during my husband’s illness and after his passing, but which understands, encourages and enables employees to give of themselves in service.
Nearly 75,000 Americans experience some degree of vision loss each year, and regardless of who they are or what they do, that loss can be devastating – both in terms of daily living, and especially emotionally. Service dogs that enable the blind to resume their lives and regain their independence are miracles on four feet. But only about one-third of puppies initially selected for development into fully trained guide dogs end up having the unique combination of temperament and commitment to serve.
Trainers know that environment plays a key role in final development outcomes, but there’s still no effective way to measure which aspects of puppy raising and training tip the balance to success or failure. Training takes two years, and costs nearly $50,000 per dog. So when a puppy ends up not being suitable for guide dog service, it’s both prohibitively expensive and emotionally devastating for all of us involved in raising, training and loving a dog. IBM is helping Guiding Eyes for the Blind find a better way.
Working with computer scientists from North Carolina State University, IBM and Guiding Eyes have developed a “Smart Collar” wearable device that collects and transmits biometric and environmental information that enables Watson AI to analyze a puppy’s emotional responses to the real-life situations they’re likely to face as guide dogs. The Smart Collars collect variations in activity, GPS data on the frequency, length and variety of socialization outings, barking (which can signal excitement or stress), and environmental information. The Bluetooth-enabled collar then transmits the data to an app on the puppy handler’s mobile phone, which then submits the data to the IBM Cloud for analysis. By comparing data from hundreds of Smart Collars, IBM’s machine learning can make complex data associations to predict the likelihood of each puppy’s ultimate success as a guide dog. With IBM Cloud, Guiding Eyes can more easily and efficiently manage and analyze its increasing volume of data to pull out meaningful insights.
I’m currently raising my seventh puppy for Guiding Eyes – an IBM-sponsored puppy named Jackie, who is one of 300 that the company is supporting through the program. My first puppy, Merrick, completed the program successfully and today is guiding a man who is blind and partially deaf. It’s really an emotional moment when you see a dog you’ve raised graduate from Guiding Eyes along with the person who benefits from and cares for them.
The Guiding Eyes/IBM Smart Collar project is an important step toward meeting the demand for guide dogs, at a cost that enables us to help address the challenges faced by those with vision loss more effectively. Watson AI and data analytics are critical to this effort. And I am proud to be part of a company that focuses its most advanced technologies on improving peoples’ lives.
Lorraine Trapani is an Executive Program Manager with IBM Government and Regulatory Affairs. She has been a volunteer “raiser” of Guiding Eyes puppies since 2011. Learn more about Guiding Eyes for the Blind, and about how you can get involved. Lorraine is featured with a previous Guiding Eyes puppy she raised.