AI guide dogs may offer aid to visually impaired

By QIN FENG in Xi'an and ZHAO RUINAN | China Daily
Updated: March 26, 2024

Robot guide dogs may soon become available to more of the 17 million visually impaired people in China thanks to researchers from Northwestern Polytechnical University, who achieved a breakthrough using an artificial intelligence language model.

They have developed an AI guide dog that can provide assistance in scenarios such as crossing streets, using elevators and navigating indoor spaces without having to be connected to the internet, according to the university.

It is a big step in exploring the application of embodied intelligence — an intelligent machine with a physical form that can interact with the environment in real-time using sensors to execute instructions or make decisions.

"Though in recent years there have been some electronic navigation aids, such as electronic navigation helmets, navigation canes, and electronic guide dogs, they cannot engage in conversations with people or fully understand human instructions," said Sun Zhe, an associate professor at the university's School of Artificial Intelligence, Optics and Electronics.

"They can only execute tasks according to pre-deployed programs. They are just cold machines. That's not enough."

The research makes it possible to provide better guidance services for visually impaired people, especially for emotional companionship, Sun said.

"Visually impaired people face numerous challenges in daily life, including navigation difficulties and safety hazards," Sun said. "Smart guide dogs using the language model can offer them more convenient and safe navigation, effectively improving their quality of life."

Training a traditional guide dog can cost as much as 200,000 yuan ($28,000), and there are fewer than 200 in China.

The research team began developing the smart guide dog based on the AI model at the end of last month. Its findings have been published in the Communications of the Chinese Computer Society.

The research was a collaborative effort between the university's School of Artificial Intelligence, Optics and Electronics and the China Telecom Artificial Intelligence Research Institute.

"The current results validate the feasibility of this approach, but there is still some way to go before it can be put into practical application," Sun said. "We will put more effort into it and make it available for those in need as soon as possible."

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