The codes helping visually-impaired people shop / Humans + Tech - #88

+ Robots were supposed to take our jobs. Instead, they’re making them worse. + World's first 3D-printed school tackles classroom shortages in Africa + Other interesting articles from around the web


Technology often ignores or gives less priority to addressing the needs of the less-abled amongst us. That’s why I was happy when I came across two articles this week about new solutions that specifically focus on their needs. NaviLens, which is helping sight-impaired people get information from food packaging much easier, and Google and AI are aiding blind runners to run in competitive races.

The codes helping visually-impaired people shop

Sight-impaired people have many challenges when shopping in supermarkets. Store layouts keep changing, and most packaging doesn’t have information in braille. They can’t easily read the nutritional information on the packages or the list of ingredients to avoid allergic reactions. They have to depend on attendants to help them out.

Traditional barcodes and QR codes are difficult to focus on and require considerable dexterity. But a new type of colourful code developed by NaviLens, a Spanish company, can be detected from up to 3 metres away and works even in low-light conditions [Douglas Shaw, BBC].

Kellogg’s is currently testing this in collaboration with St. Vincent’s School in Liverpool, a specialist school for people with sensory impairment. Soon all food packaging in the UK will contain these codes.

"I generally don't go shopping anymore because I can't do it without any kind of help," explains Beth Fowler, who is 19 years-old. "Because I can't see, practically… most things."


"With the new app I can just pick the food off the shelf and scan it," explains Beth, "and read all the information, like ingredients, for example. Everything that a sighted person could see is made accessible."

Many pupils at St Vincent's School also have food allergies, explains Dianne Waites, who teaches Braille and assistive technology at the school, so this technology is even more vital for them.

Most technology addresses the needs of the abled majority and fails to address the needs of the less-abled amongst us, so it’s always lovely to hear when companies build products to make their lives easier.

Robots were supposed to take our jobs. Instead, they’re making them worse.

The pandemic has accelerated the use of workplace monitoring. And robots and algorithms are increasingly taking over the task of monitoring. Their goal is to maximise profits and efficiency for their company, not employee wellbeing [Emily Stewart, Vox].

Amazon is hardly the only company that uses automation to keep tabs on workers and push them to do more. In 2020, Josh Dzieza at the Verge outlined the various ways artificial intelligence, software, and machines are managing workers at places such as call centers, warehouses, and software development shops. He described one remote engineer in Bangladesh who was monitored by a program that took three pictures of him every 10 minutes to make sure he was at his computer, and a call center worker who learned to say “sorry” a lot to customers in order to meet an artificial intelligence-based empathy monitor. A web of technologies has enabled the management of every minute of the working day.

“It would have been prohibitively expensive to employ enough managers to time each worker’s every move to a fraction of a second or ride along in every truck, but now it takes maybe one,” Dzieza wrote. “This is why the companies that most aggressively pursue these tactics all take on a similar form: a large pool of poorly paid, easily replaced, often part-time or contract workers at the bottom; a small group of highly paid workers who design the software that manages them at the top.”

Many companies are trying to maximise profits by treating their employees as commodities and a cost to be cut rather than a resource. The constant monitoring and focus on maximising efficiency can significantly affect employee mental health and wellbeing.

As humans, we all have bad days and other life challenges. We may not be optimal at work every single day. An algorithm cannot understand that or take that into account. The fault lies with the managers and executives who employ these robots and algorithms without thinking about how this affects employee health and wellness.

World's first 3D-printed school tackles classroom shortages in Africa

14Trees, a joint effort between UK’s CDC Group and LarfargeHolcim, has been addressing Africa’s housing crisis by 3D-printing affordable housing since late last year. UNICEF estimates that there is a shortage of 36,000 classrooms in Malawi, which would take 70 years to build using traditional construction methods. 14Trees believes that 3D printing can help build them in around ten years [Nick Lavars, New Atlas].

The organization's first school was built in the district of Salima, with the walls printed in just 18 hours, compared to the several days required by conventional methods. It was then officially transferred to a village community in the Yambe zone, with classes then beginning on June 21.

“Before, we had 12 schools in the Yambe zone; we now have 13 – with this new 3D-printed school," says Juliana Kuphanga Chikandila, a Primary Education Advisor in Malawi. "To increase our supply of education to children, we need a total of four more primary schools in the Yambe zone, but as a district, we need approximately 50 more schools to serve those in need. I am very impressed by the new building – its durability and design provide the space and facilities that students did not have before; teaching and learning can now happen inside and outside the classroom."

14Trees is also planning further projects like this in Kenya, Zimbabwe, and Madagascar.

Other interesting stories from around the web

🏃‍♂️ Google and AI help a blind man run a 5K [@nowthisnews]

👨‍🌾 Robot farmers could improve jobs and help fight climate change – if they’re developed responsibly [David Rose, Marc Hanheide, Simon Pearson, The Conversation]

A fascinating article examining the positive and negative implications to humans and society from using robots in farming.

Farming robots that can move autonomously in an open field or greenhouse promise a cleaner, safer agricultural future. But there are also potential downsides, from the loss of much-needed jobs to the safety of those working alongside the robots.

To ensure that the use of autonomous robots on farms creates more benefits than losses, a process of responsible development is required. Society as a whole needs to be involved in setting the trajectories for future farming.

🧑‍💼 Podcast: Hired by an algorithm [Anthony Green, MIT Technology Review]

If you’re job hunting, AI is likely screening your application before a human even sees it. MIT Technology Review is doing a four-part podcast series into algorithmic hiring practices. Here is part of the conversation from this first part.

Anonymous Jobseeker: So yeah, it wasn't later, until maybe about 130 applications, where I met other people who were like 200 applications in, or 50 applications in. And we all were just like, what is this? 

Jennifer: And it’s only the tip of the iceberg. There’s also chatbots, AI-based video games, social media checks, and then come the automated interviews. 

These are one-way video interviews where an algorithm analyzes a job candidate’s word choice, voice, and sometimes—even their facial expressions.  

Anonymous Jobseeker: It's the tech industry. I don't understand how the tech industry makes it difficult to get in, but then they complain that they don't have enough people to hire.

Jennifer: At this point Sally is discouraged after loads of rejection.

But then—she has a realization 

Anonymous Jobseeker: And I was just like, all right, so it's not me—it's the AI. And then that's when I got my confidence back and then I started reapplying to other things. 

Quote of the week

“Technology of course doesn’t have to exploit workers, it doesn’t have to mean robots are coming for all of our jobs. These are not inevitable outcomes, they are human decisions, and they are almost always made by people who are driven by a profit motive that tends to exploit the poor and working class historically.”

Brian Chen, staff attorney at the National Employment Law Project (NELP), from the article, “Robots were supposed to take our jobs. Instead, they’re making them worse.” [Vox]

I wish you a brilliant day ahead :)