Chieko Asakawa

Navigation Robot for the Visually Impaired

Blind people face many difficulties when they navigate and explore unfamiliar places alone. Generally, sighted people use visual information to find a destination and avoid collisions. However, blind people must rely on non-visual information, such as haptic feedback from a white cane or ambient sounds. Recent technologies, such as AI and robotics, have great potential to offer new solutions for converting visual information into a non-visual medium, thereby guiding blind people in a safe, socially compliant manner in public spaces. In this talk, I will address our recent work, “AI Suitcase”, concerning a suitcase-shaped navigation robot for the blind. It is equipped with motors and several sensors, controlled by various AI engines for autonomous navigation. I will share our experiences in real-world pilots, including airports, shopping malls, museums, and outdoor environments. I will also discuss how we can accelerate the implementation of such new technologies into our society by overcoming challenges related to technology, infrastructure, social acceptance, and business models.


Chieko Asakawa is the Chief Executive Director of the Japanese National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation (Miraikan), and an IBM Fellow, working in the area of accessibility. Her initial contribution to the field started from braille digitalization and moved onto the Web accessibility, including the world’s first practical voice browser. Today, Chieko is focusing on real world accessibility to help the visually impaired understand their surroundings and navigate the world by the power of AI. She has been serving as an IBM Distinguished Service Professor at Carnegie Mellon University since 2014. In 2013, the government of Japan awarded the Medal of Honor with Purple Ribbon to Chieko for her outstanding contributions to accessibility research. She was elected as a foreign member of the US National Academy of Engineering in 2017, inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame (NIHF) in 2019. She also received American Foundation for the Blind 2020 Helen Keller Achievement Award.