What virtual assistants mean for accessibility

Following the introduction of Cortana, Robin Christopherson explains why the AI war is especially welcome for users with impairments

For some time now, the two leading smartphone operating systems – iOS and Android – have been vying for supremacy in the battle to have the best and quickest intelligent personal assistant.

We all know about Siri, the perky AI that comes on all new iDevices, who is extremely helpful when she works and extremely frustrating when she doesn't. You've probably heard of Google Now too, which is the equivalent on Android phones.

There's also Cortana which is for Windows Phone. And she's already holding her own against the incumbents – helped along by a series of hard-hitting Microsoft ads that pit Cortana against Siri.

A showdown

Both Siri and Cortana are able to tell you Winston Churchill's birthday, provide turn-by-turn directions to your nearest pizza place, and bring up pictures of pigmy marmosets (officially the cutest monkeys in the world).

However, a painstaking perusal of the various phone face-offs online have thrown up some interesting results. Here, for example, is a video of a recent tussle between Siri and Cortana, managed by Mashable, which sums up the current key differences between the AIs.

Mashable favours Cortana in its video showdown, but the contestants are becoming faster and fitter all the time so who knows who the final winner will be?

Actually, I do – the answer is disabled users. Whilst these in-built AI agents are hard at work making life easier for all smartphone users, the disabled community is benefitting from the escalating efforts of the tech giants more than any other.

Saving valuable time

It's to do with those valuable seconds that these AIs save us, because for disabled users such as myself (I'm blind) what Siri can do in five seconds might take me five minutes, or sometimes 10. In many cases I might not be able to manage to find what I'm looking for at all because the websites I'm using are inaccessible to my screen-reading software.

The contenders themselves have no idea just how far this thing will go.

A similarly slow and painful experience is had by many who can't use a mouse. Try using your site from the keyboard and you'll soon see what I mean – it'll either not work at all or it'll take you entire minutes to get where you want to go.

So for the blind, the motor-impaired, those with learning disabilities or dyslexia, those older users who love the KISS principle, for positively millions of impaired smartphone users out there, this battle has benefits far beyond the modest boost in convenience experienced by the average user. And even the contenders themselves have no idea just how far this thing will go.

Words: Robin Christopherson

Robin Christopherson is a founding member of AbilityNet (abilitynet.org.uk), a globally acclaimed charity specialising in web, mobile and software accessibility, where he acts as head of digital inclusion. Follow him on Twitter at @AbilityNet. This article first appeared in net magazine issue 260.

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