10 Trends in Assistive Technology & AI: How the World is Becoming More Accessible

Until now, building a website for everyone has been next to impossible. Developers, struggling with ageing code and poorly constructed websites, can find it a burden to build truly accessible digital experiences. This often just comes down to time and processing constraints. But this doesn’t have to be the case.

Imagine this: your organization needs a new website, and hopes to extend its reach and the types of services it offers online. A website that truly meets this requirement would need to be accessible in many languages (between 4,000-6,500 languages, if you’re thinking globally). It would need to cater to those with various abilities and constraints, whether it be someone with an old generation phone, a slow connection, a broken arm, learning difficulties, blindness, hearing impairment…in fact, it would need to cater to every person and their way of thinking and interacting with the world for it to be truly accessible.  

Web accessibility has sometimes suffered from the perceived scale inherent in its pursuit. How can individuals, whether they be developers or entire organizations, build at the scale necessary to be considered wholly inclusive? 

The answer lies in the power of Artificial Intelligence – the most discussed, pursued, debated, and lauded development in tech today. 

In early 2018, Microsoft revealed a program called AI for Accessibility. It is a $25 million grant program aimed at exploring how AI can be utilized to improve “human capability” for over one billion people around the world living with a disability. This pursuit aims to extend its reach beyond the online world to find ways AI can shape how individuals relate to the world around them. 

Microsoft has recognized the power of AI and its importance in the 21st century, but $25 million is just a drop in the ocean. Few of us have yet to realize just how seismic the change will be as AI develops. It presents the possibility of standing digital experiences on their heads and revolutionizing web accessibility along the way.   

For organizations today – nonprofits, businesses, and governments alike – there are ways in which AI is already making web accessibility one of the most exciting aspects of tech. It’s important to understand the trends in assistive technology as AI and all it encompasses is redefining how we view the digital world and how we bring everybody along with us. 

Here are 10 trends in assistive technology and AI that are already changing the game in web and digital experience development today. 

1. Modules 

Websites have almost always been modular. Go back to the earliest of websites and we were usually segmenting information into different blocks on a page to make it easy to communicate online. 

Modular design has only strengthened as a concept as it has been incorporated into web development and now AI and Deep Learning. Google’s PageSpeed Tools, for instance, is a module that can dramatically increase page speed for websites. It is an example of the way in which developers have embraced modules as a way to isolate processes in the backend of software and web development, improving speeds, reducing risk, and making it easier to build for scale. 

Modules underpin much of AI and Deep Learning, allowing for the processing of massive amounts of data. The easier it is for digital programs to parse data, the easier it will become for them to provide specific services to individuals online. 

2. Lazy loading

Lazy loading has been around for a while. Building on the idea of modular web design, lazy loading is the process of choosing which aspects of a website to load at certain points (these are called split points) to make it quicker for key information to be communicated. 

AI promises to enhance this aspect of web development and form a bridge towards new ways of experiencing the internet by utilizing user data, such as Google Analytics, to find out what information is key to a user and how they specifically user online services. With this knowledge, Machine Learning tools can and will increasingly automate the process of lazy loading, which has until now been a subjective and manual process by developers. 

3. The IoT

The Internet of Things essentially refers to the gradual dissolution of boundaries between the digital world and the physical world, where sensory points all around us (from toasters to facial recognition) produce data at unimaginable scales and empower us in just as many unimaginable ways. The IoT is the subject of many PhDs, articles, and books already, but few talk about it in relation to accessibility. This may be because people already identify how the IoT redefines traditional notions of web accessibility, and so do not think to dive into how it will change things like W3C’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. 

W3C is working already to find ways to “counter the fragmentation” inherent in the IoT (a future with billions of sensory points and a world of ‘Big Data’). The IoT will have a core role in building digital experiences that cater to the individual user specifically (helping us build for accessibility) and a future of tailored digital experiences…

4. Tailored digital experiences

Less a trend and more a new reality in the future, AI presents the possibility of digital experiences (think beyond traditional websites) that are made specifically for each and every human being on the planet. 

Minko Gechev is an engineer with the Angular team at Google and has worked on lazy loading principles as well as the idea of tailored digital experiences. Using Google Analytics, Minko identified ways Machine Learning can identify user patterns to automate how websites and apps are loaded. 

But Minko sees the possibilities of this type of approach reaching far beyond just lazy loading of webpages. 

“An example of a data-driven UX improvement would be providing a personalized layout of the page depending on the way our users use a web app,” Minko says. “We can also predict the browsers that our users are going to use and, based on the prediction, we can apply very fine-grained differential serving — shipping the latest JavaScript that our users can execute.”

What Minko hints at is the promise AI makes to completely tailor our digital experiences. This may be a long way off, but the core capabilities and purpose of AI necessarily points to a future in which the internet one person sees is not the internet their neighbour sees. Everyone has their own habits and requirements online. Think about languages, cultural norms, physical abilities and constraints, mental abilities and constraints. Netflix already tailors the films we see based on data, imagine where we will be in twenty years. Web accessibility as we conceive of it today will be nonexistent. AI may be creating websites and digital experiences automatically and made specifically for individual users. We will realise that we don’t have to keep climbing the growing mountain that web accessibility can sometimes seem like, as AI will remove the mountain through a revolution of the digital world. 

5. Lite apps and mobile experiences

‘Lite’ apps are a growing and significant trend already. As part of the pursuit for better processing speeds and better user experiences, Machine Learning, Deep Learning, and Ai in general help to steer the progress of apps like Facebook Lite, which provide core services to those who want or need them. 

Nonprofits and government agencies stand to benefit significantly from the creation of Lite apps, as they are enabled to provide services to communities and constituents cheaply, simply, and quickly. Lite apps also take pressure off mobile services, larger apps or physical interactions for business and organizations. 

6. Neurotech

Ever heard of Neuralink? Not many people have, despite it being the brainchild of Tesla’s very own Elon Musk. This is because Elon is very quiet about this pursuit, but the organization’s website states its purpose as: 

“Neuralink is developing ultra high bandwidth brain-machine interfaces to connect humans and computers.”

‘Ultra high bandwidth’ = powerful; ‘brain-machine interfaces’ = gadgets 

So, Elon is exploring ways to connect humans and computers. Biotech and neurotech are at the frontier of AI development. Their possible uses are as impossible to predict as the use of satellites has been for our smartphones. However, neurotech and biotech show the bulk of their promise in web and digital accessibility. When users no longer have to interact with a computer via ‘stone age’ tools like keyboards and a mouse, but instead can use their minds, the possibilities are endless. 

7. Automated language identification and translation

Along with Lite apps, automated language identification and translation are growing areas for AI, providing opportunities across industries and mediums for users to access information and communicate. 

For instance, Skype Translator translates voice in real time and caters to 10 languages already. This is another way in which AI is transforming the way in which we define and conceive of ‘accessibility’. 

8. Automated image and video recognition

Like language identification (subtitles, captions) and translation, AI is also being used in automated image and media/video recognition. 

The core of Web Content Accessibility Guidelines has always been in the manual supply of relevant digital information for those who access the internet with different physical and mental abilities. Images can have ‘alt’ tags and descriptions that help screen readers and individuals process information online. AI can and will increasingly automate this process, again dissolving the barriers of time and scale that have until now hindered the pursuit of web accessibility. 

9. Automated categorization 

Automated categorization is a small aspect of AI (specifically, Machine Learning) but can be adopted now by organizations to improve web accessibility and UX. Automated categorization adopts Machine Learning tools to automate various aspects of a platform. The simplest way to conceive of this is in the retail sector. Automatic categorization can do away with the manual processing of items into different categories, eventually streamlining the process to save on processing speeds as well as man power. 

10. Open source learning and collaboration on the cloud. 

The opportunities AI does already and will one day present for the connection of communities and individuals promises one thing for web accessibility: individuals will no longer be constrained to being passive users but be liberated and supported to be active users and members of society. 

With digital experiences increasingly becoming tailored, education, communication and collaboration will be made easier through AI, empowering people to move beyond their physical or mental constraints. It may be not that AI will give those with disabilities the tools to do what others do, but that AI will remove the differences between abilities that have until now kept the digital world in the dark ages. 

What now? 

There are many ways in which AI can already be used by organizations to improve digital accessibility. Utilizing existing technologies in Machine Learning, Deep Learning, and Cloud technologies all begins by identifying your key services and needs as an organization. You don’t have to do this alone, but once it is done, you are in a stronger position to build tools and digital experiences that best serve your customers, users or constituents.

assistive technology digital experiences
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Douglas R.

Originally from Melbourne, Australia, Douglas is a copywriter and writer, working in UX Writing and longform tech writing. He has a strong interest in the relationship between tech and society and how we relate to and interact with digital tech’s ongoing evolution.

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Kristy Bauman

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