The glove, in its most primitive form, was created by Ayoub for art while studying towards her Master’s degree. She says: “I got a little bit greedy. I didn’t want to design using the keyboard. I wanted to draw designs in the air.”
It wasn’t until Ayoub was invited to represent her university at a hackathon in South Korea that she identified the glove’s potential. The event tasked participants with using artificial intelligence for social care. With a virtually complete prototype already to hand, she programmed the same tech for sign language instead of design. And won the hackathon.
The glove went viral and Ayoub was contacted by dozens of parents, teachers and speech therapists showing how her invention could change lives. That’s when she was shown the boy on the train.
When Ayoub threw herself into her PhD she began researching the assistive technology that was already out there – and why people didn’t always have access to what they needed. “I realised the devices already available which provide even basic help are very expensive, starting at £2,000,” Ayoub says. “They also lack customisation – but everyone is different, every disability is different.”
My 3 tips for success
- It’s never too late to change directions and pursue something new.
- Make sure you’re tackling the problems presented by previous attempts at a project. It wouldn’t make sense to make something else that had the same issues.
- Find a way to do what you love, you will most likely excel in it.
Eleven prototypes later and the designer-turned-programmer-turned-engineer has conducted pilot studies in schools across the country. She secured funding from councils so families are not burdened with the cost of the device.
“I learn so much when I work with people because they show me features that need to be there that I hadn’t thought of,” she says. During her visits, she is helping children learn Christmas carols through the gloves so that they can sign them at home over the holidays.
Ayoub recognised that children and exposed tech could be a risk, so sought out 3D printing facilities to build parts which would encapsulate the hardware. Her final touch was to print child-friendly designs on the glove. She says: “It’s fashion tech, and I have no clue about fashion. But I do know how to use a 3D printer.”
Ayoub’s focus shifted when she received a call from someone whose mother had suffered a stroke and lost the ability to talk. Luckily, Ayoub’s familiarity with AI meant she quickly thought up a solution. “We decided that if the lady could make up her own signs, as long as they were consistent, we could make something work with machine learning software.” Ayoub also added a translation API to allow the user to switch between languages – verbal and signed.
Finally, with the help of company Unique Voices, Ayoub made it possible for users to record as much of their own speech, or that of a loved one, through the app. The speech is then synthesised into a fully operational conversational voice, allowing more authentic day-to-day interactions for users.
She is now, she says, in search of funding and ready to move forward, with hopes of launching the product by the new year – mass-producing devices for her 700-strong waiting list and beyond.
Ayoub’s story speaks to people. Some take inspiration from her having learned to code aged 30; others recognise her fearless changes of career direction; some – Ayoub included – are aware she inhabits a male-dominated space. She is often the only woman presenting at exhibitions for health care innovation or wearable tech.
Describing AI in social care as “the difference between life and death,” she brushes off commonly held fears. “Yes, it will replace us, but other opportunities will open up,” she says. “And that’s how we should be looking at it. Moving forward.”
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