Next time you’re stuck in traffic on Symonds Street near the University of Auckland campus, pay attention to the walls around you. Through these walls, guided by the support of the University’s Centre of Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE), you will find dedicated and passionate individuals working to impact the way the world around us works. On January 10th, 2018, Arash Tayebi and his team decided to impact the learning of the nearly 70 million people that make up the global deaf community.

Deloitte Access Economics estimates that 18.9% of the New Zealand population had a hearing impairment in 2016, a total of some 880,350 kiwis. As it currently stands, some of the people with hearing loss in New Zealand can experience high barriers to the services, recognition and support they deserve. This is particularly the case in the New Zealand educational system. The current system is mainly based on aural and oral communication, resulting in limited access to educational resources for this community. This limitation leads to lower academic achievement at school, lower lifetime income, and a lower social engagement rate for those with hearing impairments. The social isolation of the deaf community is perpetuated as a result

To ensure that silence is never a limitation for people with hearing impairments, Arash and his team created Kara, self-described as the ‘Coursera for the hearing impaired’. Kara is an education platform that aims to deliver educational material to deaf children using sign language. How are they doing it? Using augmented reality, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning, the team have created ‘Niki’. Niki is a computer avatar driven by AI and neural network algorithms that drive the automatic translation of spoken words to sign language.

Niki is just one of the first avatars being created by the team at Kara. Behind the scenes, Kara are developing more hyper-realistic human avatars using the latest methods in graphics design to artistically create a world-class digital ‘person’. After dedicating nearly half a year to perfect their avatar, Kara are launching a pilot program for deaf children in schools around New Zealand. The pilot will test how deaf children react to an avatar communicating with them, and how the children communicate in response.

Kara’s revolutionary vision is not limited to children’s education, however. In the not-so-distant future, Kara’s avatars could be adapted for the work place, creating opportunities for those with hearing impairments, thereby creating a more diverse and inclusive workforce. The entry of such technology into the market provides food for thought for industry leaders, who should consider how they can leverage Kara, or similar platforms, for the benefit of their people and the organisations they lead. Such an initiative would create a competitive advantage by tapping into a formerly underutilised talent pool, and allow for a better understanding of current workforce challenges, especially in the high turnover customer-facing industries such as retail and hospitality.

The rapid advancement of the Kara platform, and the underrepresentation of hearing impaired persons in the workforce begs the question: How could your organisation use technology platforms like Kara to better cater to staff with hearing or other impairments? Further, how can we as a society utilise technology more effectively to make an impact that matters for the people and communities we serve? Not only are the payoffs for businesses self-evident, but New Zealand’s wider economy and social wellbeing would also benefit greatly.

Many thanks to Arash Tayebi and the team at Kara for their participation and interest in the preparation of this article.

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