White Mirror is a series that explores technology’s positive impact. In the sixth episode, you follow the life of Sahar Izadi – the Iranian tech entrepreneur working with Arash Tayebi to create an AI New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL) avatar named “Niki”. Though not Deaf or Hard of Hearing herself, read how Sahar has become an ally to the Deaf community after suffering extreme gender-based oppression through her younger years. And how the empathy developed from marginalisation in her home country has landed her in a position to give a voice to a marginalised community here in New Zealand.
Leave behind all of your expectations and preconceived ideas.
If while you’re reading this, you begin to judge the words or feelings that arise, try to suspend them… if only for a minute. You’re about to glimpse an alternate reality; one that’s available to you right now. Welcome to White Mirror.
Imagine being told ‘no’ 1000 times.
Just last year, Kellie Wilson, a 32-year-old British woman spoke up – and made headlines – for being rejected from that same number of jobs in only 18-months because she was Deaf. That’s an average of 2 ‘nos’ every day.
Deaf and Hard of Hearing (HoH) people around the world face unrelenting discrimination and inequality every day. Every tiny, quotidian interaction or activity can become frustrating at best, and triggering or abusive at worst. Everything from banking to accessing equal education opportunities can be a waking nightmare.
If we look back through our country’s historical treatment of this group, there’s been flagrant oppression until only relatively recently. Deaf Education Centres – institutions designed specifically to cater to the learning needs of deaf children – have been in Aotearoa New Zealand since mid 1800. Then, all because of a decision made in 1880 at the Second International Congress on Education of the Deaf in Milan, institutions around the world enforced a total ban on sign language. After this, Deaf children were taught to reproduce the sounds made by spoken languages (a practice called “oralism”), instead of being able to embrace sign languages. This ban continued for over a century.
Of course, that didn’t mean children weren’t using the “illicit” language. Some of these Deaf children were secretly signing to each other – behind nuns’ backs. Their very own ’home’ language became one that made its way around the country organically, with small pockets of deaf and HoH school kids signing at playgrounds, under desks and in their dorms. And even though New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL) became an official language in 2006, there is still little understanding or awareness of deaf culture and people within our communities.
Enter Sahar Izadi and her team at Kara Technologies. They’re determined to take the language mainstream, evolving closed captions and NZSL by leaps and bounds. From one marginalised group to another, they’re working to increase accessibility for a silent culture.
Izadi, though not deaf herself, is one of three co-founders of Kara Technologies. She was born in Iran, right in the middle of the eight-year Iran-Iraq war. She met her co-founder, Arash Tayebi (also from Iran) when they were both PhD students at the University of Auckland, and the pair quickly became close friends. One day, Tayebi developed Ménière’s, an inner ear disease – losing hearing in one of his ears and facing the real possibility of becoming completely deaf in both ears.
Meanwhile, Izadi was battling self-limiting beliefs created from a childhood entwined with unforgettable, traumatic memories. September 2020 will mark four decades since Saddam Hussein ordered the Iraqi invasion of Iranian land at the countries’ border. What he intended to be a swift win turned into nearly a decade of violence, resulting in over a million deaths in total. War led to political, social and economic turmoil that lasted for years, and increased pressure on both women and minorities.
“Some of my most vivid memories are of men in military outfits who were patrolling the streets in search of women who had not covered their hair properly, or couples who didn’t seem married. Those people were arrested for moral crimes against the religion, and against all of the martyrs of revolution and war. I remember being at kindergarten, and one of the mothers was arrested in front of the kindergarten because her veil was not covering her hair properly. I still remember her little boy’s cries.”
Izadi completed both her Bachelor of Science and Master of Science (Marine Zoology) at Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran, studying, researching and writing for Danestaniha Magazine until her late twenties. “As girls, we had many limitations that boys did not experience, and those limitations grew as we grew up. I rebelled, and I tried to change things. But I realised that no matter how good I was at what I was doing, the unwanted obstacles were always between me and my goals,” says Izadi.
To this day, Iran is one of only six UN states that have not signed the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women. From the classroom, to the institution of marriage, the inequality of women in Iran is equally insidious and covert as it is outrageously overt. In 2012 she’d had enough of the systemic sexism and discrimination and left for Scotland to broaden her horizons. It was a PhD research programme from the University of Auckland that lured her to New Zealand in 2014.
Being subject to the culture in Iran has armed Izadi with a sense of unrelenting empathy and compassion. After Tayebi experienced his hearing loss, Izadi was one of the first people he talked to about the idea, which today has become Kara Technologies. Asking if she would like to come along on the journey with him, Izadi of course said a very enthusiastic yes.
We’re Going on a Bear Hunt might currently be the most popular, accessible and widely-known children’s story in the world. That’s because the 1989 classic was the inspiration behind the worldwide ‘bear hunt’ phenomenon that took place over lockdown in dozens of countries, including NZ, during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
The book is the first children’s story to be translated into NZSL using “Niki”, their ‘human-like’ artificial intelligence avatar. Using a motion capture suit (like the one used by Andy Serkis to create Gollum during the making of LOTR), to record the Deaf storyteller’s gestures and facial expressions, which are then reproduced by Niki. The translated story is currently freely available on the Kara Technologies online library. The second book, The Very Cranky Bear, has just been released, a third book is on the way (The Seven Kites of Matariki) and fourth has been earmarked for release (Tuatara and the Skink).
Why bother recreating these movements through an expensive CGI ‘human’? Why not just video a real person? That’s where Kara’s technology gets interesting. Eventually, Niki will learn sign languages – from the hand movements right down to the detailed facial expressions. The idea is to create a scalable solution that improves accessibility and normalises sign language. The possibilities are endless: Niki may one day appear on everything from online videos and websites to TV shows and movies, signing what she ‘hears’ in real-time. It is important to understand that she won’t replace a human interpreter and face-to-face interaction.
Though it’s just the beginning, Niki is already having a huge impact on deaf tamariki around the country. She’s been involved in a pilot project with Ko Tāku Reo Deaf Education centre in their two locations: Kelston (Auckland) and van Asch (Christchurch). “When we visited the two centres and their regions, the children’s reaction was full of joy, enthusiasm and encouragement,” explains Izadi. “They had many brilliant ideas that they shared with us and asked us to come back again.”
This is really endearing feedback for the team, whose big hairy audacious goal is to one day create an iconic signing character. A cult name for deaf children, much like the designed-to-be-helpful Microsoft Paperclip (affectionately named “Clippy”) was for many of us writing tedious documents through the late 90s.
Empathy and perseverance are traits Izadi has in abundance – ones she credits to her grandmother. “She was the kindest and the most caring person I’ve ever known. She had a difficult life, but her way of looking at things, her strength and perseverance shaped the way I am looking at the world now. I have always been very persistent in following my goals. I’ve tried very hard to change myself and my environment – in order to get to where I want to go.”
Izadi has found a connection with her work at Kara through her own struggle and experience with an unjust world. She wants the next generation to thrive, not just survive, in an environment that is safe and inclusive. An environment where everyone’s rights are protected and respected, no matter their gender or ability.
Equipped with a vision to make change, and an impressive list of qualifications under her belt, Izadi is truly a force to reckon with. Through Kara, she hopes future generations will be able to access basic things like education, employment, healthcare or banking, without facing the same ‘nos’ both her and the Deaf community have experienced in the not too distant past.
Sahar Izadi would like to thank and acknowledge her team (Arash Tayebi, Farmehr Farhour, Zachary Best, Ken Erskine and Richard Falla), the NZSL Board, and Ko Tāku Reo Deaf Education New Zealand.
We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, The Very Cranky Bear, The Seven Kites of Matariki all are freely available online at www.kara.tech/library. The library is password protected due to copyright (to access the library, enter ‘stayathome’ when prompted).