MIT Undergrads Invent Compact Device That Translates Text to Braille

Brian Smale, Microsoft
Brian Smale, Microsoft

For years, scientists have been using technology to leap across language barriers. We’ve seen earpieces that translate spoken conversations and gloves that decode sign language, but when it comes to translating braille in real time there are few options available. A group of undergraduates from MIT are looking to change that with a device small enough to fit in your hand, Smithsonian reports.

Five of the six engineering students (Charlene Xia, Grace Li, Chen Wang, Jessica Shi, and Chandani Doshi—Tania Yu joined the project later) first collaborated on the project at MakeMIT’s hackathon as team 100% Enthusiasm in February of last year. The team won the contest with a braille-translating tool they called Tactile. Using an external webcam, Tactile converted printed text to braille. It displayed the translation one character at a time by poking combinations of pins through its plastic surface.

The team has come a long way since creating the initial prototype, with the latest version of Tactile featuring a built-in camera. Users place the compact box directly over the text they wish to translate and press a button to snap a picture. From there, Microsoft’s Computer Vision API translates the words and conveys the message in braille in six-character chunks. The entire process, from taking the picture to raising the pins, takes roughly the same amount of time as flipping a page.

Handheld device translates text into braille.
Rendering shows the students' vision for Tactile.
Brian Smale, Microsoft

Tactile recently earned the women the Lemelson-MIT Student Prize and the $10,000 award that comes with it. They plan to use those funds to refine the product and get it commercial-ready within two years. When it hits shelves, the team hopes to sell the device for less than $200—a fraction of the cost of most high-tech braille translators currently on the market. They’ll also be working on ways to make Tactile smaller (right now it’s about the size of three smartphones sandwiched together) and more user-friendly (ideally it will scan an entire page rather than a few lines at a time, and display 18 characters instead of six).

Microsoft is one of the team’s biggest supporters. They’ve been accepted into Microsoft’s #MakeWhatsNext program, an initiative that offers legal assistance to women inventors seeking patents. “There cannot be enough investment in technology that will enable, empower and allow people with disabilities to go and do amazing things,” Jenny Lay-Flurrie, Microsoft’s chief accessibility officer, is quoted as saying on the program's webpage. “I can’t wait to see where this one goes—and I think the patent is a great next step.”

[h/t Smithsonian]

Google Now Lets Parents Manage Their Kids' Phone Time Remotely

iStock
iStock

Setting screen time limits on teenagers was much easier in the pre-smartphone era. Modern parents often have to choose between taking their kids' phones away or letting them text through family game night—but now Google is offering a different option. Beginning today, September 18, Android phone owners are able to set restrictions on their teens' devices, either by setting time limits, locking their phones remotely, or subjecting app downloads to parental approval, The Verge reports.

These features are rolling out through Family Link, an app Google released in 2017 that lets kids create Google accounts that their parents can access. With the new changes, minors over age 13 can create similar Google accounts, or update their old ones to enable parental controls.

As is the case with Family Link for kids, parents can use Google's software to manage how—and how much—their kids use their phones as well as track their location. The biggest difference with the Family Link apps for teens is that both account holders must consent before parents can start monitoring their kids' phones. And if teens ever decide they want to make their phone activity private, they can choose to turn off the supervision mode. The catch is that doing this will lock them out of their phones for 24 hours and send a notification to their parents.

The new features are now available on all Android phones, and will be coming to Chromebooks soon. Users in the U.S. will also be able to use their Google Assistants to manage their Family Link accounts starting next week.

[h/t The Verge]

AI Is Tackling Yet Another Creative Medium: Improv Comedy

iStock
iStock

AI-generated fan fiction, music videos, and film scripts are often so bad that they’re hilarious. Could an AI program get the same number of laughs if it attempted improv comedy in front of a live audience? As Inverse reports, artificial intelligence researcher Kory Mathewson created an algorithm to find out.

Mathewson, from Canada’s University of Alberta, teamed up with London-based researcher Piotr Mirowski to create a chatbot, A.L.Ex, which stands for Artificial Language Experiment. They fed subtitles from 100,000 films into a neural network in the hope that A.L.Ex would be able to come up with jokes and carry on a conversation with a live human performer. (They also applied a filter to the robot to stop it from saying “politically incorrect” things, and presumably to prevent a disaster akin to Tay, Microsoft’s Twitter bot.)

Once A.L.Ex was sufficiently prepared for the spotlight, a performer interacted with the chatbot (who was given a robot body) on stage in an improv scenario. Audiences were asked to participate in a Turing test: During some scenes, a human backstage was controlling the robot's responses, while in others, A.L.Ex was doing all the work. Audience members were later asked to guess whether the dialogue was coming from the bot or an actual human. The experiment was repeated in three locations: Stockholm, Sweden; London, England; and Edmonton, Canada.

The result? The bot failed to fool humans and pass the Turing test, but it still garnered a few laughs. For one thing, the system was unable to tell complete stories. “If you want to tell a story, humans tend to have to pick up the arc and carry it through, since the Cyborg rarely brings arguably important characters or plot items back,” one of the improv performers wrote, according to a paper that Mathewson and Mirowski uploaded to the preprint platform arXiv [PDF].

Mirowski told The New York Times that the bot is like a “completely drunk comedian” who is only “accidentally funny” on occasion. Fortunately for comedy lovers, machines probably won’t be taking over the stage anytime soon. “We do not think that machines will replace human actors or comedians,” Mathewson told Inverse. “We aim to build new tools and techniques for human storytellers to share their human experience. This work aims to test the development of a new form of medium.”

[h/t Inverse]

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