This shuttle bus will serve people with vision, hearing, and physical impairments and drive itself

The current interior of the Olli bus. Manufacturer Local Motors and IBM are developing assistive technologies to add to the next generation of the vehicle.

It’s been 15 years since a degenerative eye disease forced Erich Manser to stop driving. Today, he commutes to his job as an accessibility consultant via commuter trains and city buses, but he has trouble locating empty seats sometimes and must ask strangers for guidance.
A step toward solving Manser’s predicament could arrive as soon as next year. Manser’s employer, IBM, and an independent carmaker called Local Motors are developing a self-driving, electric shuttle bus that combines artificial intelligence, augmented reality, and smartphone apps to serve people with vision, hearing, physical, and cognitive disabilities. The buses, dubbed “Olli,” are designed to transport people around neighborhoods at speeds below 35 miles per hour and will be sold to cities, counties, airports, companies, and universities. If the buses enter production in summer 2018, as planned, they could be among the earliest self-driving vehicles on U.S. roads.Since Olli is fully autonomous and does not have a human driver, it uses IBM’s AI-powered Watson technology to converse with passengers (via voice and text displayed on an iPad). Olli navigates using radar, lidar, and optical cameras from a company called Meridian Autonomous. Before deploying in a neighborhood, Meridian Autonomous constructs 3-D maps of the area that Local Motors says are accurate to the half-inch. A human fleet manager then determines the bus route. When Olli detects an emergency via its various sensors, it will stop, notify a (human) remote supervisor, and independently run through a checklist of possible problems. “If a passenger has a medical problem or [there’s a safety issue], Olli will call the authorities or drive itself to a hospital or police station,” says Gina O’Connell, a Local Motors general manager who is leading the project.

Local Motors and IBM started collaborating on Olli in early 2016 and produced a first iteration of the bus in June 2016. That vehicle is currently in trials in Germany and Switzerland. It is the next—second—generation of Olli that will include assistive technologies. That version, which the companies call “Accessible Olli,” will be manufactured starting in 2018, and will retain Watson as a tool for communicating with passengers and add additional Watson features.Local Motors and IBM are still testing technologies, but have already identified some capabilities they are likely to add. Future Ollis, for example, might direct visually impaired passengers to empty seats using machine vision to identify open spots, and audio cues and a mobile app to direct the passenger. Olli could also guide passengers via a special type of haptic feedback that uses ultrasound to project sensations through the air. An array of haptic sensors could be designed into every seat, and when people walk down the aisle they would feel a vibration on their hand or arm to alert them that they were at an empty seat, explains Drew LaHart, the program director for IBM’s accessibility division. For hearing-impaired people, the buses could employ machine vision and augmented reality to read and speak sign language via onboard screens or passengers’ smartphones. LaHart says that Olli could be trained to recognize sign language using machine learning and Watson’s image recognition capabilities. If the bus were equipped with AR technology, it might be able to respond via a hologram of a person signing.Machine vision could also enable Olli to recognize passengers waiting at bus stops who have walkers and wheelchairs. The bus would then activate an automated ramp to help them board and then deploy equipment that would secure their assistive devices, locking a wheelchair into place, for example.
Another potential Olli technology combines machine vision and sensors to detect when passengers leave items under their seats and issues alerts so the possessions can be retrieved, a feature meant to benefit people with age-related dementia and other cognitive disabilities.This would all be a significant improvement over the typical bus accommodations of today, which are limited to wheelchair ramps and lifts and audible and visual bus route updates. Local Motors, IBM, and the CTA Foundation, the charitable arm of the Consumer Technology Association, a trade group for the consumer electronics industry, and a partner in Accessible Olli, have spent the past three months soliciting ideas from disability rights organizations and retirement communities, among others. Manser, who works for IBM Accessibility, has organized a workshop with blindness organizations and public transit agencies and attended an MIT assistive technologies hackathon in March to explain the challenges he encounters on public transportation.Local Motors plans to keep soliciting public input for several more months. In July, it will devise an engineering plan for the new version of Olli, select suppliers, and calculate the cost of fabricating the bus. It aims to sell the vehicle for about $250,000 and will also offer a leasing-subscription service that would cost $10,000 to $12,000 a month and include hardware upgrades. Because Olli is mostly manufactured on-demand, through 3-D printing, its design can be tweaked quickly in response to user feedback, says O’Connell.The company expects public transportation operators will be its main customers and hopes that cities will buy the buses to fill in gaps in their regular transit systems and not just as paratransit vehicles for disabled people.For those with disabilities, though, Olli could be a big improvement over the current options.  Door-to-door paratransit service tends to be slow, has to be scheduled ahead of time, and is only available to people who qualify for it, says Henry Claypool, who is the policy director of the Community Living Policy Center at the University of California, San Francisco, and a wheelchair user. “It’s much more reliable to be able to get on and off a bus at the same place and have a predictable schedule, especially if the bus has this type of assistive technology,” he says.Olli offers a way to address important limitations of public bus and train systems as well, says Susan Henderson, the executive director of the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund. The Americans with Disabilities Act mandates only that “key” train and subway stations be accessible, which means that people with wheelchairs, walkers, and scooters often have to travel several stops out of their way to get home or to a destination, says Henderson. “If I still had 10 blocks to go after getting off at my local station, having an Olli rolling around my neighborhood would make a big difference,” she says.

Charity launches new Down Syndrome doll to help children

Billy’s Dolls of Comfort say that while the dolls are “a comfort not a cure”, they claim they have been proven to help people with a range of conditions, particularly those with Alzheimer’s.

Winnie O’Neill founded the organisation about 18 months ago and she explained how the toys make a big difference.Winnie, who lives in Carbury in Co Kildare, told Independent.ie: “My daughter works in a nursing home and she was telling me that many of the Alzheimer’s patients like dolls, I was intrigued by this so I decided to collect some to give to nursing homes.

“When I was first asking people to donate they thought I was mad, they’d never heard of doll therapy.  I brought any that needed restoration to a knitting lady who gives them fabulous makeovers and any, that aren’t suitable for elderly patients, are given in the Christmas shoebox appeal to children in places like Haiti and the Philippines.”It’s all about the kids and older people.

“It was only after I gave it that I found out it’s not just people with Alzheimer’s the dolls help but they provide comfort to all sorts of people.”We also deliver dolls to autistic children in schools.

“We’ve been told that these dolls can really help calm older people who might be distressed, we got a call a few weeks ago about a woman with Alzheimer’s who was crying over the death of her son and when we gave her a boy doll that was wrapped up, seemingly that did the trick and helped her.”Billy’s Dolls of Comforts has grown so much over the past year and a half that Winne now runs it with business partner Jennifer Brady and three volunteers.

This week Winnie (54) provided her first doll that is designed to resemble someone with Down Syndrome, which she has named Noah.She said: “The reason we got the Noah doll was because we got a call from a nursing home in Athlone  saying there was a client there who was very upset. When we got there it turned out her son has Down Syndrome and she was missing him but we didn’t have a doll with Down Syndrome so we went looking for one online and we tracked some down to a company in Germany.

“We ordered them and they took a few weeks to come and there was a lot of delays and we couldn’t understand why but we’re going to be giving it to the woman now.”If she bonds with Noah and wants to keep him we’ll have to charge, it’ll be between €80 and €100. We’ve never charged before, everything we do is completely free but this doll is specialised and it cost us to order him.

“If other people want one we can get them for them too, it’s no problem.”I’ve never seen a Down Syndrome doll before but we’ve been led to believe that children with Down Syndrome gel quicker with them than with other dolls.”

They receive no funding and rely on donations and Winnie says that the organisation is “getting bigger than her” and she would love to receive sponsorship.For more information or to find out about donate please visit their Facebook page

Human Conditions Improving at a Remarkable Rate

On a number of previous occasions, I have written about the extent of human progress around the world, but the remarkable speed of improvements in the state of humanity should not go unnoticed. To that end, I have looked at some of the most important indicators of human wellbeing, especially in the poor countries, over the last decade (or, when the latest data is not available, ten years prior to the last data point). The results are encouraging and ought to give us reason for 7:00 am

3.14.17 7:00 am

3.07.17 8:50 GDP per capita in real 2010 dollars (2005-2015)
Global: $8,858 → $10,194 or a 15.1 percent Africa (SSA): $1,363 → $1,660 or a 21.8 percent increase
India: $982 → $1,751 or a 78.3 percent increase
China: $2,738 → $6,498 or a 137.3 percent increase
2. Infant mortality (i.e., children under age of 1) per 1,000 live births (2005-2015)
Global: 44.3 → 31.7 or a 28.4 percent decline
SSA: 80 → 56.4 or a 29.5 percent decline
India: 55.8 → 37.9 or a 32.1 percent decline
China: 20.3 → 9.2 or a 54.7 percent decline
3. Life expectancy (2004-2014)
Global: 69 → 71.5 or a 3.6 percent increase
SSA: 52 → 58.6 or a 12.7 percent increase
India: 64.2 → 68 or a 5.9 percent increase
China: 73.4 → 75.8 or a 3.3 percent increase
4. Depth of the food deficit, kilocalories per person per day (2006-2016)*
Global: 129 → 88.4 or a 31.5 percent decline