Founders Gal Sont and Dan Russ. Photo: SwiftKey
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Innovative eye-tracking technology could transform communication for those paralysed

An Israeli start-up backed by predictive-keyboard-pioneer SwiftKey is offering hope for severely disabled individuals.

How do you type if you can’t use your hands? Dictation might be your first thought, but for sufferers of neurodegenerative diseases, this isn’t always an option. Dysarthria – severe speaking difficulty – is a common symptom of many disorders such as Parkinson’s and Huntingdon’s disease, which can render communication almost impossible.

To combat this, an Israeli duo has developed an innovative solution. Click2speak is an exciting new piece of software that could have a huge impact for paralysed people – it allows the user to type on a virtual keyboard using nothing more than eye-movements.

Gal Sont is the inspirational figure behind the tech. Described by co-founder Dan Russ as a reckless adrenaline-lover, Sont’s energetic lifestyle changed in 2009 when he was diagnosed with ALS – the most common type of motor neurone disease. It causes nerve cells in the spine and brain to degenerate, preventing voluntary muscle movement and progressively paralysing the entire body. There is no known cure.

After being diagnosed with the disease, I contacted other individuals who suffer from ALS at different stages, and began to learn about the different challenges that I would face as my disease progressed. I also learned about the tech solutions they used to cope with these challenges.

 The most basic challenge was typing, which is done using a virtual on screen keyboard, a common solution shared by not only individuals affected by ALS, but a variety of illnesses such as brain trauma, MS [multiple sclerosis] and stroke victims. The fully featured advanced on-screen keyboards, again proved relatively very expensive (starting at $250), so I decided to develop the ultimate on-screen keyboard on my own.”

This was a bit easier than it sounds – the maths and computer science graduate has been programming for decades. As his situation deteriorated and he lost the ability to use a mouse, Sont purchased an advanced eye-tracking camera to allow him to code Click2speak with his eyes. Here's how it looks from the user's point-of-view:

On its own, this technology is actually nothing new. Fellow ALS sufferer Stephen Hawking has used facial recognition software to track cheek and eyebrow movements as well, in order to spell out words. What makes this technology so sophisticated is the inclusion of tech from the highly successful Swiftkey Android keyboard - its AI technology learns to predict his words based on sources like texts, Facebook messages and tweets. Sont used it to greatly speed up the process of typing words without hands.

This started a new journey that introduced me to SwiftKey’s revolutionary technologies and how we customize them to our specific needs. I reached a first version of our keyboard and distributed it to friends who also suffer from ALS. They gave us invaluable feedback through the development process, and they all raved about its time saving capabilities and accuracy and how it makes their lives a little easier.”

The last couple of months have been exciting in terms of technological developments – we’ve seen Google and Apple hold conferences showcasing driverless cars and smartwatches – but this niche development seems to pack more punch. The team are looking to quickly get a first version out on the market as soon as possible, and eventually ensure all paralysed individuals can have easily affordable access to this sort of assistive technology.

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A quote-by-quote analysis of how little Jeremy Hunt understands technology

Can social media giants really implement the health secretary’s sexting suggestions? 

In today’s “Did we do something wrong? No, it was social media” news, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has argued that technology companies need to do more to prevent sexting and cyber-bullying.

Hunt, whose job it is to help reduce the teenage suicide rate, argued that the onus for reducing the teenage suicide rate should fall on social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter.

Giving evidence to the Commons Health Committee on suicide prevention, Hunt said: “I think social media companies need to step up to the plate and show us how they can be the solution to the issue of mental ill health amongst teenagers, and not the cause of the problem.”

Pause for screaming and/or tearing out of hair.

Don’t worry though; Hunt wasn’t simply trying to pass the buck, despite the committee suggesting he direct more resources to suicide prevention, as he offered extremely well-thought out technological solutions that are in no way inferior to providing better sex education for children. Here’s a quote-by-quote analysis of just how technologically savvy Hunt is.

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“I just ask myself the simple question as to why it is that you can’t prevent the texting of sexually explicit images by people under the age of 18…”

Here’s Hunt asking himself a question that he should be asking the actual experts, which is in no way a waste of anybody’s time at all.

“… If that’s a lock that parents choose to put on a mobile phone contract…”

A lock! But of course. But what should we lock, Jeremy? Should teenager’s phones come with a ban on all social media apps, and for good measure, a block on the use of the camera app itself? It’s hard to see how this would lead to the use of dubious applications that have significantly less security than giants such as Facebook and Snapchat. Well done.

“Because there is technology that can identify sexually explicit pictures and prevent it being transmitted.”

Erm, is there? Image recognition technology does exist, but it’s incredibly complex and expensive, and companies often rely on other information (such as URLs, tags, and hashes) to filter out and identify explicit images. In addition, social media sites like Facebook rely on their users to click the button that identifies an image as an abuse of their guidelines, and then have a human team that look through reported images. The technology is simply unable to identify individual and unique images that teenagers take of their own bodies, and the idea of a human team tackling the job is preposterous. 

But suppose the technology did exist that could flawlessly scan a picture for fleshy bits and bobs? As a tool to prevent sexting, this still is extremely flawed. What if two teens were trying to message one another Titian’s Venus for art or history class? In September, Facebook itself was forced to U-turn after removing the historical “napalm girl” photo from the site.

As for the second part of Jezza’s suggestion, if you can’t identify it, you can’t block it. Facebook Messenger already blocks you from sending pornographic links, but this again relies on analysis of the URLs rather than the content within them. Other messaging services, such as Whatsapp, offer end-to-end encryption (EE2E), meaning – most likely to Hunt’s chagrin – the messages sent on them are not stored nor easily accessed by the government.

“I ask myself why we can’t identify cyberbullying when it happens on social media platforms by word pattern recognition, and then prevent it happening.”

Jeremy, Jeremy, Jeremy, Jeremy, can’t you spot your problem yet? You’ve got to stop asking yourself!

There is simply no algorithm yet intelligent enough to identify bullying language. Why? Because we call our best mate “dickhead” and our worst enemy “pal”. Human language and meaning is infinitely complex, and scanning for certain words would almost definitely lead to false positives. As Labour MP Thangam Debbonaire famously learned this year, even humans can’t always identify whether language is offensive, so what chance does an algorithm stand?

(Side note: It is also amusing to imagine that Hunt could even begin to keep up with teenage slang in this scenario.)

Many also argue that because social media sites can remove copyrighted files efficiently, they should get better at removing abusive language. This is a flawed argument because it is easy to search for a specific file (copyright holders will often send social media giants hashed files which they can then search for on their databases) whereas (for the reasons outlined above) it is exceptionally difficult for algorithms to accurately identify the true meaning of language.

“I think there are a lot of things where social media companies could put options in their software that could reduce the risks associated with social media, and I do think that is something which they should actively pursue in a way that hasn’t happened to date.”

Leaving aside the fact that social media companies constantly come up with solutions for these problems, Hunt has left us with the burning question of whether any of this is even desirable at all.

Why should he prevent under-18s from sexting when the age of consent in the UK is 16? Where has this sudden moral panic about pornography come from? Are the government laying the ground for mass censorship? If two consenting teenagers want to send each other these aubergine emoji a couple of times a week, why should we stop them? Is it not up to parents, rather than the government, to survey and supervise their children’s online activities? Would education, with all of this in mind, not be the better option? Won't somebody please think of the children? 

“There is a lot of evidence that the technology industry, if they put their mind to it, can do really smart things.

Alas, if only we could say the same for you Mr Hunt.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.