Q&A with Will Scott: Innovative Young Engineer applying AI to accessibility

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Three IBM researchers have been named 2017 Innovative Young Engineers by the National Academy of Engineering (NAE). Griselda Bonilla, Kun Hun, and Will Scott joined the the nation’s 82 brightest young engineers to take part in the NAE’s 23rd annual US Frontiers of Engineering symposium. Engineers ages 30 to 45 who are performing exceptional engineering research and technical work in a variety of disciplines came together for the two-and-a-half day event this past September.

The 2017 USFOE, hosted by United Technologies Research Center in East Hartford, CT, covered cutting-edge developments in four areas: Mega-Tall Buildings and Other Future Places of Work, Unraveling the Complexity of the Brain, Energy Strategies to Power Our Future, and Machines That Teach Themselves.

Will Scott, an engineer at IBM’s research lab in Austin, TX spoke about his role in accessibility research, his latest project, Content Clarifier, and why we shouldn’t be afraid of AI.

What is your role at IBM?

I’m a software architect working with the IBM Accessibility Research team. My area of focus is developing solutions and assistive technologies built using deep learning and artificial intelligence. My research seeks to enable individuals with learning disabilities, those learning English as a second language, and the elderly facing cognitive decline. To accomplish this, I continually leverage my background in IBM product development, and draw from cross-domain knowledge in Cloud, Mobile, and web-based technologies.

When, and why did you join IBM?

I joined IBM in 2003 after completing my PhD. I was eager to join a company with a pedigree and history of groundbreaking innovation, patent leadership, and the sheer size and scale of IBM — in particular, IBM’s ability to bring together some of the brightest minds on the planet to solve difficult problems across industries.

How is your work changing the world?

IBM Accessibility Research develops technologies that have a direct impact on humanity. With this lens and focus, we look to enable various demographics via our technologies, then extend our research to other use cases across the enterprise. With our research in natural language processing, deep learning and artificial intelligence to enable individuals with learning disabilities, or those that learn differently, such as those on the autism spectrum, we are advancing the state-of-the-art in assistive technologies. Using artificial intelligence approaches, we can transform digital content to better suit an individual’s preferences or capabilities in a number of ways:

  • Augment content with additional multi-modal, contextually-relevant information to yield comprehension gains
  • Generate graphical visualizations regarding emotion and tone conveyed in content based on color gradients, for those that find it challenging to discern emotional cues
  • Perform content transformations to simplify or summarize digital content

We are delivering these technologies, like the IBM AbilityLab Content Clarifier, as APIs so that they can be integrated into any technology. We’ve also built an end-user application running on Bluemix cloud that allows our served demographics to interact with the technologies.

What’s your response to the “AI is scary” narrative that often plays out in media and entertainment?

This is an interesting narrative, and I believe it will take time for a great number of people to become comfortable with AI and related technologies. In my opinion, I liken this narrative to another transformative technology – the airplane. In 1903, when the first successful flight was recorded, I’d imagine that many found the idea of humans “flying in machines” very unnerving. Fast forward to today’s time, and we’re approaching normalcy of autonomous vehicles.

The point is, usually any truly transformative technology is jarring. It shakes up the status quo and that in itself is unnerving. Given time however, and as the continual impact and benefit of such a transformative technology becomes evident, fear and uncertainty gives way to adoption and advancement. As airplanes made the world a smaller place, and enabled travel possibilities at distances and speeds that were not possible previously, AI will enable humanity to derive insights and deliver technologies that were previously unimagined — especially in helping people with physical or cognitive disabilities.

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