Cagri Zaman and Emre Sarbak, "AI Helping the Blind"

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Two friends from Turkey are bringing the latest advances in AI to people with visual impairments. Emre Sarbak was a consultant and a successful social entrepreneur. Çağrı Zaman was an architect but is now completing his PhD at MIT’s Media Lab in computer vision. Their startup Mediate is building practical tools to help people with reduced vision navigate the world.

Topics covered include:

Sal talks briefly about portfolio company SQZ Biotech.

  • Brief bios of Çağrı (pronounced “Cha-ree”) Zaman and Emre Sarbak.

  • Emre describes what Mediate does; visual impairment is one of the most limiting disabilities.

  • Blindness causes the highest level of unemployment among the disabilities.

  • Vision loss is a growing problem for an aging population.

  • The ultimate goal is for a visually impaired person to be totally autonomous.

  • Spinoff from Çağrı Zaman’s work at MIT on spatial artificial intelligence.

  • Won MIT DesignX Challenge in 2017.

  • Emre actually met Çağrı via a Turkish language podcast Emre used to do in which he interviewed Turkish technologists in the US.

  • Çağrı explained his technology during the interview and Emre was captivated by the social impact it could have.

  • Spatial intelligence is easy for humans but hard for machines; Moravec’s Paradox.

  • Their startup is riding a wave of developments in object recognition. Their recognizes objects and puts them into an actionable setting for the user via their iPhone

  • Sal asks for you to leave your review in iTunes.

  • At trade shows for the visually impaired, most of the offerings used to be Braille tags, magnifying lenses and the like. 

  • Most of the innovation was incremental in a fragmented market.

  • Smartphones have begun to change this; huge adoption among the blind worldwide.

  • iPhone’s user interface is particularly suited to this use.

  • Mediate sees a huge opportunity in this. Current apps can provide basic description of objects and the environment.

  • Emre thinks the phone should not be describing things but rather doing a task assigned by the user.

  • Beta user took the trash out for the first time in his life.

  • Çağrı believes the specialized data set required to train Mediate’s AI will provide a barrier to entry against competitors.

  • More than 400 beta testers. NSF grant will help to make the technology easier to adapt to new environments.

  • Look forward to aural interface that instantly and intuitively tells the blind person about their environment.

  • Their dream is that in ten years a visually impaired person will have not limitations in terms of getting an education, getting jobs and getting around.

  • Emre worked at LaunchCode in St. Louis, Missouri, a non-profit helping entry-level people start coding, and became fascinated with the idea of unlocking people’s potential with small interventions.

  • Helped build a coding academy for Turkish university grads.

  • Emre also learned the importance of listening closely to the users of the technology so as to create usable tech.

  • Spatial intelligence is really important for autonomous vehicles and domestic robots. Key component of the future of artificial intelligence.

  • Çağrı ascribes the over-representation of immigrants among startup founders to having fresh perspectives.

  • Emre brought in a scene from “Blade Runner” to explain why immigrants start companies, it’s because they’ve “seen miracles” and expect them to happen again.

  • They are trying to make the next decade the most transformative in history for the visually impaired.