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Be My Eyes: The popular app for the blind or visually impaired

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

People who are blind or visually impaired are increasingly using apps to help them navigate the world. These apps can identify objects or read text aloud. One of the most popular apps connects people who request help with sighted volunteers - at least for now. NPR's Claire Murashima reports.

CLAIRE MURASHIMA, BYLINE: Brian Fischler is blind. He can tell whether it's light or dark outside, but that's about it.

BRIAN FISCHLER: I have a piece of mail here, and I'm not sure who it's from. I was hoping you might be able to just tell me.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Sure. Do you mind moving the camera to the left a little bit?

FISCHLER: Not at all.

UNDENTIFIED PERSON: So it looks like it's your energy bill.

FISCHLER: Oh, how funny. I'm signed up for...

MURASHIMA: He's using an app called Be My Eyes. It relies on volunteers to do things like describe holiday cards or tell you if that can in your cupboard is coconut milk or chicken soup.

FISCHLER: I grew up sighted like everybody, and I was diagnosed at 13 with retinitis pigmentosa. And for me, the lights went out about 2009.

MURASHIMA: Fischler is a New York-based podcaster and stand-up comedian. He's used the app since it first came out eight years ago.

FISCHLER: Especially here in New York City, you have a lot of businesses right on top of each other. So my guide dog can get me close to where I want to go, but he doesn't necessarily know what door I want to go to, especially if it's the first time that I'm going to a business.

MURASHIMA: More than 6 million volunteers are providing the eyes of Be My Eyes. Steven Ellis lives in Goldsboro, N.C. He has family members who are visually impaired and started volunteering because he just wanted to give back.

STEVEN ELLIS: A man had called me to help him try to set up some wires that he was using for his TV, but they were color-coordinated. He just wanted to make sure that he was connecting the right colors.

MURASHIMA: But the app that depends on humans is going to start using artificial intelligence. Be My Eyes CEO Mike Buckley says the AI can do things that people cannot.

MIKE BUCKLEY: What if the AI ingested every service manual of every consumer product ever? And so you could tap into the AI and say, how do I hook up my Sony stereo?

MURASHIMA: The artificial intelligence is also handy in the kitchen.

BUCKLEY: We took a picture of our refrigerator. And it not only told us what all the ingredients were, but it told us what we could make for dinner.

MURASHIMA: But will the AI replace the volunteers who make Be My Eyes so popular?

BUCKLEY: I hope it ends up being 50/50 because I do think that there's going to be a desire for continued human connection. There's some volunteer feedback we've gotten. When they actually get a call, they talk about it as the best day of their week.

MURASHIMA: Fischler has been using a beta version of the app with artificial intelligence. And so far, he's impressed.

FISCHLER: This goes so above and beyond in the speed that it does it at. It scanned the entire menu. But then I was able to ask follow-up questions. Like, I was in the mood for chicken. And I was able to say, just read me the chicken dishes.

MURASHIMA: Fischler says that the AI is a good complement to the app's human volunteers.

FISCHLER: I've been a little skeptical about this, AI. I was a "Terminator 2" kind of a guy where the machines weren't exactly lovely and cuddly and helping us. So to have a tool like this is really absolutely spectacular.

MURASHIMA: Whether the helpers are real or artificial.

Claire Murashima, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Claire Murashima
Claire Murashima is a production assistant on Morning Edition and Up First. Before that, she worked on How I Built This, NPR's Team Atlas and Michigan Radio. She graduated from Calvin University.

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