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With AI and other tech, Anat Caspi focuses on helping people with disabilities

Melissa Hellmann, The Seattle Times on

Published in Science & Technology News

SEATTLE -- While walking beneath a canopy of trees on the winding Burke Gilman trail, artificial intelligence researcher Anat Caspi pointed to the evenness of the terrain along the University of Washington campus periphery. "A lot of times we don't want the shortest path," Caspi said over the din of traffic whizzing by. The scenic route she picked for its level ground, while not the most direct, allowed her to walk and talk.

Caspi is especially keen at noticing raised curbs, downhill and uphill steepness, and the nuances in surfaces that are unique to every path. She has to be.

In her role as the director of the University of Washington's Taskar Center for Accessible Technology, Caspi creates technology focused on people with disabilities such as motor limitations, in many instances applying artificial intelligence (AI).

"It's really about treating people as humans with different needs and preferences," she said as a cyclist passing by rang a bell.

She sees the mapping of pedestrian infrastructure -- walkways, sidewalks, overpasses, underpasses and trails -- as a necessary lifeline for people with disabilities. Everyone approaches an environment with different levels of attentiveness and perceptual and motor abilities.

Yet a few years ago, Caspi noticed that cities don't have a data standard for tracking pedestrian walkways that reflects the vast spectrum of user ability. So she and her Taskar team created a framework to log the features of sidewalk infrastructure in a project called OpenSidewalks, which is now being used by King County's paratransit service to help people with disabilities navigate any trip.

 

According to an AI-powered online travel planner called AccessMap that she helped create, the surface of the route that Caspi chose on that sunny Wednesday is made of concrete with a 0.5 % uphill steepness -- important knowledge for a person using a wheelchair, for example, who would want to avoid a steep incline when traveling in that neighborhood.

It's the development of such tools that has catapulted Caspi and her Taskar team to the forefront of accessible technology in the U.S., an emerging field that uses AI -- among other things -- to help empower people with disabilities. She sees her work as transcending the needs of the worldwide, and "designing for the fullness of the human condition."

Caspi's interest in technology began as a youth in her native Israel, when her mom enrolled her in a programming class at a local community center in the fourth grade. Although her family didn't own a computer, she said the class sparked her passion in programming and provided a framework to tackle problems in a functional way.

Her awareness of the inequities in access to education crystallized a few years later, when Caspi took an AP computer science class in high school after her family moved to California. Although she was initially one of 10 female students in the class, Caspi became the only one her teacher selected to test for advancement, due to her prior programming experience.

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