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Cornell Tech Students Team Up with TechWorks to Create Assistive Technology AI 

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During Fall 2023, five graduate students from Cornell Tech teamed up with ADAPT Community Network as part of the Cornell Tech Product Studio program. The Product Studio program is a high-intensity, experiential workshop that pairs student groups with organizations like ADAPT to leverage their technological knowledge and experience to brainstorm, develop, and test innovative solutions in response to a “How might we…?” challenge prompt developed by the partner organization. According to Cornell, the program emphasizes application rather than consumption; meaning that the students approach our organization with an open mind and outsider perspective rather than receiving concrete directives from ADAPT, which allows them to build an entrepreneurial mindset and approach.

The students working with ADAPT were named Swadesh Malneedi, Ke Shi, Sabrina De Gunzburg, Max Clouser, and Bingyan Hu. The group was faced with the following challenge: “How might we better support people with intellectual and developmental disabilities to live more independently?”

To start things off, in order to help the students better understand the scope of the challenge, ADAPT staff provided a comprehensive background on ADAPT, including our mission and vision, the programs we offer, the people we support, and the challenges we face. In addition, we organized a site visit at our Lawrence Avenue campus so that the students could get an in-person look at the breadth and depth of the services we offer and speak to people supported and direct care staff. During the tour, the students were able to visit the Brooklyn School-Age program, the Brooklyn Day Habilitation program, a couple of residential programs, and our TechWorks studio. They chatted extensively with Peter Pitarresi and Mary-Beth Frey from TechWorks about the challenges they face in providing education and access to assistive technologies to people with disabilities in New York City. With hundreds of assistive tech items, Mary Beth and Peter are responsible for being a resource to any person supported by ADAPT as well as in the community at large who want to use assistive technology to help them achieve some of their goals. It was this discussion that led the students to think about ways they could work with  Techworks staff to create a system to match assistive technology to the people with disabilities to best support their needs.

By creating this assistive technology device recommender, a user can enter their information and the program outputs a device that addresses their individual challenges. Students planned to use generative artificial intelligence to automate the process of cataloging assistive devices, which would then help people with disabilities identify beneficial assistive technologies based on their needs and goals.

Towards the end of the Fall semester, the Cornell students gave their final presentation to ADAPT summarizing what they had learned and illustrating whether their idea could be a viable solution to support people with intellectual and developmental disabilities to live more independently. The enormous demand for education and access to assistive technology and finding more efficient methods to match assistive devices to the specific needs of people with disabilities were primary motivators for this project. The number one concern was time efficiency for both people with disabilities and TechWorks staff. If done correctly, their device-recommending software would guide individuals to possible solutions from a preset comprehensive database. This would allow TechWorks staff to focus more of their time on answering technology-specific questions and providing guidance, as well as obtaining and correctly customizing the equipment, which can’t be easily automated.

To create an assistive technology-matching application within the timeframe, the students opted to use an artificial intelligence tool already at their disposal: OpenAI’s ChatGPT. Their first order of business was to determine whether they could use ChatGPT to automate the process of creating a comprehensive database of readily available assistive technology. When they saw that ChatGPT could competently identify devices with minimal training of the algorithm, they concluded that it would be possible to use existing artificial intelligence tools to catalog assistive technology and make recommendations to people with disabilities.

With this knowledge, it was time for the students to create their own closed artificial intelligence model that could use information and make recommendations from a preset database.  They supplied it with fifteen assistive technology devices to see if the software could recommend an appropriate device to address the needs for a person with a specific disability and/or goal. They deemed the initial experiment successful and concluded that with further development and refinement, their assistive technology recommendation application could be used in a practical setting.

One of the students, Max Clouser, explained a little about what it was like working with ADAPT, saying, “This project challenged us to innovate with inclusivity at the forefront and ultimately, it was a reminder that at the heart of technology lies the potential to transform lives, making the world more accessible and equitable for all.”

This is just the beginning of the partnership between Cornell Tech and ADAPT, as ADAPT plans on having additional Cornell students work on projects in the future through the Product Studio program, Public Interest Technology program, and other programs.

Peter Pitarresi, Director of TRAID/TechWorks stated, “Teaming up with the students to assist in creating software for helping disabled people is like joining forces in a powerful journey. It’s not just about the code itself, it’s about creating something amazing that brings compassion, inclusion, and endless opportunities to those who need it. “

If you or a loved one lives in the New York City area and is interested in receiving free assistive technology services, TechWorks is here to provide you with assistance. We offer adapted toys and switches, adapted computers and peripherals, wheelchairs and inserts, augmentative communication systems, daily living devices, home and workplace modifications, environmental control units, and much more. For more information or to schedule an appointment at one of our TechWorks centers, please email or call 718-436-7979, ext. 711.



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