The race to teach sign language to computers (The Economist)

Allegra Wisking
March 19, 2021

With technology advancing rapidly, the use of voice to control computer systems is beginning to supersede the use of keyboards. This is demonstrated by devices such as Amazon’s Alexa, Google Home and Apple’s Siri function. Whilst this is advantageous for the majority, it fails to consider people with communication difficulties, particularly those who are deaf. As a result, there have been increasing efforts to teach computers sign language.

Food for Thought

What are the challenges this presents?

  • Interpretation problems: like spoken languages, sign language constitutes various grammars, idioms and dialects. This makes interpretation far more difficult than simply recognising spoken syllables or written letters.
  • Data analysis: each sample must be carefully annotated including movement, facial expression and subtlety of emphasis and is therefore extremely time-consuming.
  • Privacy issues: recording of sign language requires participant’s faces to be seen, not just their voice. How do you think we could overcome some of these barriers? Are there ways that we could anonymise the data? Perhaps by using face filters, or replacing faces with artificially generated alternatives. However, would this diminish the quality of the data?

How could a software like this be used in medicine?

Following the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a large shift to online appointments, whether that be video or audio call. For deaf individuals, this can make communication even more difficult. Therefore a software that can transfer sign into text or speech would facilitate easier communication and remove the need for an interpreter. So far there has only been a focus on converting in this direction as it is more difficult to translate speech to sign. However, in a healthcare context, this would be essential in allowing deaf patients to receive a response from their doctors. Do you think implementing this software would be a good idea? How do you think it would make deaf patients feel? Do you think it would affect the flow of the conversation, and if so, how? Think about the challenges outlined above and how they would affect the doctor-patient dynamic.

Practice Interview QUestions
  1. Why is privacy of data an important consideration in medicine? Think about the 4 pillars of medical ethics.
  2. What communication difficulties might deaf people face? Imagine you are a GP and your patient is deaf - what are some techniques you would use to communicate with them more easily?
  3. Do you think the NHS does enough to support the deaf community? Can you think of ways healthcare could be more accessible to deaf patients?

Extra Reading (optional)