Israel’s OrCam to help blind people cast vote independently

A pilot project makes OrCam’s artificial vision device available at 12 polling stations in Tuesday’s election

Shoshanna Solomon was The Times of Israel's Startups and Business reporter

An illustration of how the OrCam machine will be used at 12 polling stations around Israel in a pilot project to create greater accessibility for disabled people in the April 9, 2019 general elections (Courtesy)
An illustration of how the OrCam machine will be used at 12 polling stations around Israel in a pilot project to create greater accessibility for disabled people in the April 9, 2019 general elections (Courtesy)

Israeli startup OrCam, which has developed devices to assist the blind and the visually impaired, will make its technology available at 12 polling stations in Israel on election day on Tuesday, April 9, in a pilot project that will enable visually impaired people to vote without the need of an escort for the first time ever.

The company partnered with the Central Elections Committee and the Center for the Blind in Israel to implement the project. OrCam’s artificial intelligence-based device, which snaps onto glasses and reads out to users what they are seeing, was chosen after a tender was issued two years ago to find accessibility technologies for the elections. The polling stations were selected so they could serve Jewish, Arab and ultra-Orthodox citizens, the statement said.

OrCam’s MyEye artificial vision wireless product is basically a little camera with a mount attached to a computing device, weighing less than an ounce and the size of a finger, with a personal speaker on the other end. When the OrCam camera is attached to the frame of a pair of glasses, users can point to text on any surface, and the speaker transforms the image into words and reads them out. That way, users can “read” newspapers, restaurant menus, or books — and now ballot slips.

In the process, AI-driven software uses a high-resolution video camera and smart algorithms that analyze what the camera is seeing, and read back the information to a user in real time.

“The device will instruct the users and read them what is written on the ballots, so they can identify the one they want,” said Ziv Aviram, the CEO and co-founder of the Jerusalem-based startup in a Facebook post. The initiative is “the first of its kind in the world.”

There are some 24,000 blind citizens in Israel, out of whom 22,000 are eligible to vote. Another 100,000 are visually impaired, OrCam said in a statement. Voters who are blind or visually impaired will now be able to vote in two ways: at a regular polling station with an escort or at one of the polling stations in the pilot,  using the device or their escort, if need be.

There is no need to register ahead of time to use one of the accessibility polling stations, a person manning a hotline for the Central Elections Committee told The Times of Israel.

Details of the participating polling stations are available on the Central Elections Committee website or via these hotlines:
• 3857 or 073-3899500
• 3859 or 073-3899501
• 3852 or 073-3899502

Aviram said that many blind people he consulted with had expressed concerns that the escorts who help them to vote were not putting their actual choice into the envelope. Now, Aviram said, they “will be able to be 100% sure that they voted as they wanted.”

The pilot will show how the firm’s AI technology can help enrich the lives of thousands of citizens, he said, expressing a hope that other countries would adopt the method.

Aviram set up the firm in 2010 together with Prof. Amnon Shashua. The two entrepreneurs are both also the founders of Mobileye, a maker of self-driving car technologies, acquired in 2017 by Intel Corp. for a massive $15.3 billion.

“This is the first time in the world that a state has found a solution in such a sensitive area for democracy,” Matan Bar-Noy, director of business development at Orcam, said in a phone interview. The system will give blind voters both the right to privacy — without having to reveal to their escorts how they are voting — and the assurance that their ballot will actually be put into the envelope.

For the elections, OrCam has developed a special device, adapting its technology to enable it to read letters on the ballot slips rather than words. It will also infer what the letters could be, even if they are partially covered by the fingers of the voters, he said. “A smart algorithm can deduct the missing bit,” he said.

The device is a standalone and not connected to the internet, he said, thus protecting it from any hacking efforts. It has also been vetted and approved by cybersecurity experts, he said.

OrCam has developed two devices that are already used by thousands of people globally.

Its OrCam MyEye artificial vision device helps people who are blind and visually impaired navigate the world. The device can also be programmed to recognize faces and products.

The company’s other product, the OrCam MyReader, focuses on reading alone and is good for people who can see but have trouble reading, for example those with dyslexia or who have suffered a stroke.

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