Strictly Business: Technology opens new horizons for many

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian Business Editor

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Gordon Oliver, Columbian's business editor

While visiting Seattle a few weeks ago, we stayed with a relative who was born without sight. Shannon can see color but cannot recognize people or objects. Yet from the time at age 7 when she learned to ride a bicycle, Shannon has embraced her life and learned how to navigate easily without sight. She’s built a career in marketing and technology companies in Portland and Puget Sound, living on her own and relying on public transit. Her blindness is part of who she is, not a disability.

Shannon embraces new technology at every opportunity, with more than a gadget-geek’s interest in the latest product developments. It was at her home that I learned about Echo, an Amazon “personal assistant” product that the company attempts to humanize with the name Alexa. My introduction to Alexa literally seemed to come out of nowhere.

“I didn’t understand your question,” Alexa intoned from the kitchen as we conversed in the living room of Shannon’s home. “Alexa, be quiet,” Shannon replied to the distant voice.

Alexa, living within a tabletop black column that’s plugged into the wall, is a great friend to have. Think of her as a voice-activated big sister to Apple’s voice-activated Siri, Google Now, and Microsoft’s Cortana: she can find music to fit your mood, launch a timer during meal preparation, order take-out pizza or call for an Uber driver. The features can be mere novelties in our technology saturated lives — indeed, another Seattle friend asked her Alexa to tell a joke or two just for fun — but they’re more than a little helpful to a person who relies on other senses to fill a void left by a lack of sight.

Echo is hardly a life-changing technology, the way that the personal computer, the Internet, and mobile phones have opened endless possibilities for people who are blind. But it’s a valuable convenience.

We’ve become so accustomed to new technologies that it takes a good deal to impress us. Early reviews of Echo weren’t always kind. The $179 personal assistant can tell you the weather and deliver your favorite tunes but it doesn’t yet tap into apps that would deliver a wealth or recipes or other commonly used information. But we’ve seen other technology products move from baby steps to giant leaps in short time periods, and Alexa should is winning more friends as she becomes more useful. She’s bound to show up in many more homes.

Echo’s contributions to a person without sight are minor compared to the potential breakthrough in transportation on the near horizon. This month, U.S. vehicle safety regulators said the artificial intelligence piloting system for a self-driving Google car could be considered the driver under federal law. Translated: a blind person could drive one of these cars. And Uber is hard at work on developing driver-free cars. That breakthrough, Uber chief executive Travis Kalanick said in 2014, could make the cost of taking an Uber anywhere cheaper than owning a vehicle.

Most of us will probably keep our cars. For someone like Shannon, this news could easily be life-changing, cutting hours out of her weekly travel time and opening countless new opportunities. The world suddenly becomes a different and much larger place.