How new tech is empowering disabled workers

The Dawn Ver café proves how businesses can turn to advanced technology to provide equal opportunities.
10 December 2018

Remotely controlled robots OriHime-D, serve customers at a cafe in Tokyo, Japan. (REUTERS/Issei Kato)

A cafe that features robot waiters controlled remotely by paralyzed people has opened its doors in Tokyo, Japan. Able to be operated by eye movement alone, the robots can be instructed to move, observe and talk to customers and carry objects.

10 workers, who suffer from a variety of conditions that restrict their movements have helped control the robots in the Dawn Ver café, where they earn 1,000 yen ($US9) per hour – the standard rate of pay for waiting staff in Japan.

Originally conceptualized for use in the homes of disabled people, the ‘OriHime-D’ robots are the creation of Japanese startup Ory. The pilot scheme aims to explore the link between disabled people and robots, helping those who are housebound to earn a salary and interact with others in an easier fashion.

While the café will only be open for two weeks, the creators are seeking to raise enough financing through a crowdfunding initiative in order to keep the Dawn Ver café permanently open from 2020 onwards.

Transformational tech

Creative approaches to advanced technology have great potential in empowering those with disabilities to stay independent.

Japanese-born Chieko Asakawa, who is herself blind, has devoted herself to the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) to transform life for the visually impaired. Her voice-controlled smartphone app, NavCog— currently in pilot stage— assists blind people in navigating complicated indoor locations using low energy Bluetooth beacons that are installed every 10 meters (33 feet) to create a map of the interior. “We detect user position by comparing the users’ current fingerprint to the server’s fingerprint model,” she explained.

Asakawa is now trying to create a lightweight navigational robot which helps to assist a blind individual through complex areas such as airports, while streaming directions, information on flight delays or gate changes. Dubbed the ‘AI suitcase’, it will be motorized and capable of autonomous movement using an image-recognition camera to detect surroundings and Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) for measuring distances to stationary objects.

Microsoft, meanwhile, has committed US$115 million for its ‘AI for Good’ program— which sets out to provide “technology, resource, and expertise to empower those working to solve humanitarian issues and create a more sustainable and accessible world”— and US$25 million to its AI for accessibility initiative.

At the same time, Google has also developed a program, Lookout, to help blind and visually impaired people learn about their surroundings.

Head of Enterprise AI Research at CCS Insight, Nick McQuire, believes that while historically people with disabilities have often been overlooked in terms of technology development, recent advancements by technology firms to invest in AI applications that ‘“improve social well being” show a positive trend emerging.

While just one example, the Dawn Ver café initiative should serve as broader inspiration for how companies of every kind can utilize advanced technologies to make their businesses more accessible to everyone and improve quality of life.