Artificial intelligence helps determine which puppies can serve the blind

YORKTOWN HEIGHTS, N.Y. — If there are two things that seem to be polar opposites, it’s the warm exuberance of puppies and the cold intelligence of a supercomputer like IBM’s Watson.

At Guiding Eyes for the Blind in Yorktown Heights, New York, need has brought the two together — to help determine which puppies are good candidates to serve the blind.

“The incidence of blindness is increasing at an incredibly and somewhat alarming rate,” said Thomas Panek, CEO of the guide dog organization. Panek lost his sight in his 20s.

“Only about 36 percent of the dogs make it” as a guide dog, he said.

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To be a successful guide dog, puppies need to be healthy, confident enough to take charge and make decisions on the fly, and most of all, they have to enjoy the work.

For decades, Guiding Eyes for the Blind has been accumulating data, some of it provided by puppy raisers like Lorraine Trapani, who is also an IBM employee.

“TJ is 4 months old and I’ve already started to collect data on his behavior, things we’re working on, things he might be interested in, a bee that’s flying by. Things we need to work on so when he’s a guide dog, he can ignore those distractions,” Trapani said.

One trainee inspects an umbrella

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That’s where IBM’s Watson comes in. So far, Watson has analyzed half a million kilobytes of behavioral data, and that’s just the beginning.

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“It’s enabled Guiding Eyes to uncover insights that they couldn’t previously do with the resource that they had” Trapani said.  

The system was able to predict with 100 percent accuracy which dogs would make it to graduation.

It costs $50,000 to produce a guide dog, whether they graduate or not. Improving the odds for picking puppies will not only…

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