Clara is 10 years old and cannot walk or talk because she was born with cerebral palsy. Faced with such misfortune, she has one piece of luck on her side. Her father is a computer scientist who quit his job in order to develop an app to let her communicate.
“Communication is the most basic need of a human being,” says Carlos Pereira, explaining why he developed the software which gives his daughter a voice. “Now I know so much about my daughter, what she is thinking about, what she is capable of. She has been able to demonstrate her maths skills. I want her to be able to show her worth as a productive individual.”
Pereira has developed the Livox app which uses special algorithms to interpret motor, cognitive and visual disorders, as well as machine learning to predict and understand what the person might want or need.
Take the basic ability to tap an icon on a tablet computer, for example. People with motor disabilities don’t touch a screen like able-bodied people – they may touch with their whole hand, drag their fingers and make frequent involuntary touches. The algorithm absorbs the specific way a person is tapping the tablet and automatically starts compensating for mistakes.
The software can also predict what needs or words are likely to be used in a variety of situations. “What would you like for breakfast,” someone could ask. The Livox understands the question and provides a number of popular options – usually as icons to be tapped and then turned into an audible voice if required. At school, the software can hear a teacher’s question, and provide appropriate multiple choice answers to be selected. The longer Livox is used by a particular person, the more it will understand and predict the desired response.
In designing his product, Carlos spent time with hundreds of different people with specific needs at a rehabilitation centre in Brazil. It now has more than 20,000 users, many of them with Down’s syndrome, autism, cerebral palsy or multiple sclerosis. And the app can adapt its interfaces for people who can’t read, see or understand abstract concepts.
Livox had two other key advantages: it is cheap and it is quick.
Speed is incredibly important in dynamic communication. The British theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, who has motor neurone disease, uses one of the most sophisticated systems in the world to generate speech. A tiny muscle movement in Professor Hawking’s cheek is detected by an infrared switch attached to his reading glasses, through which he can select a couple of letters. He can then select a word, build a sentence and finally send it to the speech synthesizer. But it is a slow process, and Professor Hawking himself has talked about the patience needed.
The cost of communication devices are often prohibitively expensive without health insurance. One of the leading US providers charges $10,000 for speech communication devices, while a device which is controlled with your eyes would cost about $17,000. A licence for Livox, meanwhile, costs just $250 and is compatible with the cheapest of tablets.
A global audience
Pereira’s passion to see his app become available to the people who need it led the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship and Folha de São Paulo to select him as the 2017 Social Entrepreneur of the Year for Brazil.
People can always relate to the frustration of not being able to communicate, he says, whether they have an uncle who has had a stroke or know a child with autism.
“But what I want people to really understand is that disabled people are capable of things and can be productive individuals,” he says, when asked about his desired outcome from speaking at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos in 2018.
“I want to persuade people to build a more equitable society.”
For Clara’s sake, let’s hope he succeeds.