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Breaking Down Barriers

Technology for Good

Image Source: techsgood.org

Technology. Is. Everywhere. We live in a world where most people feel that if they are not checking their feed at least a couple of times a day, they are going to miss something and get left behind. But the question arises–Is the technology that is being touted as “game changing” and “revolutionary” really helping the world—is it really helping humanity and moving us forward? Or is it moving us to the point of non-existence where we are basically a number? Don’t get me wrong, I see the value in social media—it has created connections that were not possible before and has given people who were depressed living in solitude, some hope. VR is cool in concept, but why are we choosing to live in another reality vs. our own? And with AI, as easy as it makes our lives, why are we looking to remove the one thing that has made us the superior beings on the planet—our humanity? Saying that, is a new snapchat filter really something we should be applauding and what value does it really add in today’s world? Instead of using our time constructively, following our passion, or changing the world, we are tooling around creating a virtual representation of ourselves for the world to see and judge and then complaining at the end of the day that “we just don’t have the time”.

Luckily, not everyone in this world has gone down the rabbit hole. I recently had the honor of attending the MIT Technology Review’s European Innovators Under 35 Summit in Paris. For over a decade, the MIT Technology Review recognizes young innovators and the most talented entrepreneurs in the world. The objective of the program is to recognize innovation, creativity and the development of new technologies to solve current problems and promote global change. This year the competition went one step further by aiming to compile a pool of 35 individuals within the European Union and created five categories—inventors, entrepreneurs, visionaries, pioneers and humanitarians.

With all the technological innovations out there geared to virtual reality, social media and big brother initiatives, it was refreshing to see that there are still people out there looking to make the world a better place.

Though everyone’s innovations were extraordinary, I found these three innovators in the humanitarian category, not only inspirational, but truly game changing. They are breaking down barriers in today’s world and truly promoting a better and connected society.

Hear the World

Thibault Duchemin, Ava

Thibault Duchemin, 26, from France is challenging the status quo in accessibility, mobile and speech technologies. As the only hearing member of a deaf family and with sign language as his mother tongue, he was the translator and human bridge between his family and the outside world. Thibault’s thought “If you can compensate for this loss of visual cues, you dramatically increase accessibility.“ He has developed Ava, an app that helps the deaf and hearing impaired to follow conversations being said around them in less than one second. Ava helps individual with hearing deficits communicate in group conversations by identifying speakers in a conversation and presenting captions in a chat app format. When we think about people who are in need of this technology, it is not just the deaf, but also the hearing impaired and seniors who are losing their hearing—This app has the potential to help this large demographic, roughly 400+ million people. Only 25% of conversations can be understood by reading lips and this number decreases when it is a group situation—in group conversations there are a lot more variables and cues get missed or lost. As we know, everything in this world is about making and building relationships and people with hearing disabilities operate at a deficit. With Thibault’s new technology, they don’t need to anymore.

Ava helps those who normally would not have the chance to engage in a conversation an opportunity vs. a disadvantage. The technology transcribes conversations in real time and can differentiate voices the same way technology can differentiate fingerprints. This

Kristina Tsvetanova, Blitab®

Kristina Tsvetanova, 29, from Austria is changing the game for the other sensory spectrum, the visually impaired. She is the Co-Founder of BLITAB®, the world’s first tactile tablet for people with sight loss. She moved me with this statement, “Imagine a world where every person with sight loss has the opportunity to grow and prosper—where education, technology and knowledge are open to them, to help them be the best they can be”. It reminded me of how much we take for granted and how technology needs to focus on solving social issues.

Kristina was motivated to create this product when she was studying Industrial Engineering. A blind colleague of hers asked her to sign him up for an online course because he couldn’t do it himself. When she saw why he couldn’t read a web page using a braille interface she was shocked and decided to change the status quo. Her ultimate vision is to improve literacy rate among blind children via teaching and promoting Braille with the tablet, to improve employment rate among blind adults and overall to enhance the experience and quality of private life of blind users by empowering them to play games and read books and other publications.

When I spoke to Kristina, she informed me that only 1% of printed books are accessible in braille and all the existing keyboard technology out there only lets you read 5 words at a time at a cost of $3K-$5K. “Imagine reading Harry Potter 5 words at a time” she said to me. The old antiquated technology directly leads to low literacy rate among blind children and she wants to change that—Her technology is going to change that. 

 The BLITAB® tablet is different because it can convert any text document in any language into braille by page, has voice recognition and factors for things like images, Google maps, etc. making the user experience more vivid for those individuals who cannot see the world fully. For the first time, visually impaired users can learn, work and play with one mobile device, have digital access to information in real time, online and offline. “BLITAB is not just a tablet—it is a platform for all existing and future software applications for blind readers. So we do not compete, we integrate and collaborate.”

The Rainbow Connection

Joana Moscoso, Native Scientist

Joanna Moscoso, 31, from Portugal is bridging the gap and fostering relationships from a global perspective. She created a non-profit organization, Native Scientist, that connects foreign national students and scientists to reduce educational disadvantages and promote science and language literacy. She hopes to create social impact by promoting and exploiting cultural and linguistic diversity in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).

When I asked her what motivated her to create Native Scientist, it too, was a personal experience. She was a Portuguese PhD student in London and she believed it was important to help young children not to fear science as a subject. She started volunteering and going to schools to talk about her work. At some point she and her cofounder came across a worrying statistic—Portuguese children in London schools were among the poorest achievers. Among all the immigrant children, the Portuguese were falling behind. From that day on, they knew they needed to do something about it and they did.

A story she shared that should inspire as all—“When we started with the program there was one community in London and the Portuguese teacher said on my second workshop ‘I have kids that are not coming to this class because the parents don’t want their kids to meet the scientists.’ Three years later the same teacher comes to me and said ‘I now have parents wanting to register their kids for the Portuguese class because the scientists are coming’”.

This demonstrates the value and strength of social change when given the opportunity. Change is imminent and we need to have the same determination, resilience and “never back down mentality” as Joana has to make sure society moves in the right direction.

Her ultimate vision is to live in a society where being an immigrant is something to look up to, rather than a something to look down to. Immigration is still linked with low-educated, low-income backgrounds and being bicultural or bilingual is not generally celebrated, admired or acknowledged. She wants people to not feel ashamed or less capable because they are immigrants. Traveling to different parts of the world, I see what Joana is saying firsthand and truly believe that talent is everywhere and opportunity is not—we really need to work together to cultivate this talent. Imagine a future where everyone can reach their full potential in a globalized world—I think that is something we can all sign up for.

These three individuals (who I would like to also mention are all millennials) are truly showing us how technology can make the world a better place for those already living in it by following their passion to solve problems they encountered in their real life experiences. I honestly think with what they have created and developed individually they could probably create something really great together! 

We should all follow their lead. Instead of making society more inhuman, we should be focusing on ways to adhere to humanity’s core values, embrace the differences and see how we can connect and thrive better together in the real world vs. living in some virtual space and “future” world. Innovation doesn’t always need to be something that we saw in a sci-fi movie as a child; It should be something that helps all people live better lives and have advantages to experiences and opportunities that they normally may not have had before. That is what makes this world so great and that is the type of innovation we should strive for. 

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