Guiding Eyes for the Blind: Supercomputers & super pups
Lorraine Trapani may be a visionary — in more than one sense of the word.
The Ridgefield resident is a volunteer for Guiding Eyes for the Blind, an organization dedicated to training service dogs for the visually impaired.
She is also an IBM employee, and one of the key figures involved in a new project bridging the two occupations: the introduction of Watson — IBM’s supercomputer — to Guiding Eyes, helping the philanthropic group analyze data in a revolutionary way.
“It started when Guiding Eyes moved its data to the IBM Cloud,” saving the nonprofit 40% of its operating costs, Trapani told The Press.
With the information online, it has become more open to processing.
“I asked the Guiding Eyes research director if she had heard of the Watson analytics program, and, from there, she decided to test it out.”
For her involvement with both organizations, Trapani was featured on the July 26 edition of CBS’ evening news along with TJ, the puppy she’s been raising.
“CBS had seen an advertisement for the Guiding Eyes program,” she recalled. “They reached out to Guiding Eyes who reached out to IBM, and that’s how they found me.”
“CBS came to Ridgefield to film me with TJ,” she added. “They came to the Ridgefield Fire Department and also visited the Canine Development Center in Patterson [New York] where TJ was born.”
Labradors and laboratories
So how can a supercomputer help raise service pups?
According to Trapani, Watson can help Guiding Eyes decide which dogs to breed and train, find the right volunteer to rear the right puppy, and match the blind with the most compatible service animals.
In other words, IBM’s technology can help maximize the productivity of the $50,000 — collected in donations — that it takes to raise each Guiding Eyes Labrador, by finding the pups, volunteers, and recipients with the greatest chance of cooperative success.
“In a recent study, Watson was able to predict with 100% accuracy which of of the dogs would go on to become guide dogs and which puppy raisers would be successful,” Trapani said.
This analytical precision is a particular feat considering that only 36% of Guiding Eyes pups pass the rigorous service dog examination.
But beyond solely analyzing data — much of which comes from questionnaires filled out by volunteers about their puppy’s progress, according to Trapani, technology for collecting information is also coming down the pipeline.
“It’s easy to skew someone’s impression of you when you are defining yourself on paper,” she said.
So to avoid human bias, “North Carolina State University is developing a ball,” Trapani said.
“When puppy-raisers come in for a match they will be given the ball and told to play with their potential puppy.”
The toy is more complex than it appears at first glance, using tactile sensors to measure the puppy’s bite strength and additional technology to record the raiser’s heart rate and voice tone.
“The ball can determine the strength of the bond between person and animal. It sends the information collected to Watson to predict your chance of success with the relationship,” Trapani said.
Trapani is currently raising her fifth and sixth pups, a black lab named Kendall and a golden lab — and now TV star — named TJ.
She was inspired to volunteer because of her husband, who lost his vision in a surgery for his pancreatic cancer before he passed away in 2002.
“After that, I threw myself into my work at IBM,” she said.
That was at least untilan acquaintance — the mother of the builders constructing Trapani’s Ridgefield home — recommended she become a Guiding Eyes volunteer.
And so, Trapani attended her first training school “graduation.”
The ceremony, which is open to the public, is “the culmination of 21 days of a blind person learning how to trust their new dog,” Trapani said.
It is also the first time volunteers, like herself, can see the puppies they raised for 14-16 months before the labs began their schooling.
“It was the most moving thing you can imagine,” she told The Press.
“The dog leads their blind person into the room and sits with them. Through the whole ceremony, without fail, the dog is staring up, straight up, to make sure their person is safe and comfortable.”
Two of the four labs Trapani raised have advanced to graduation.
“To see the pup from an age when he still needed to be house trained, now as a magnificent dog responsible for the safety of a human being — it’s incredible,” she said.
And Ridgefield is one of the best places to bring up a service dog, according to Trapani, who walks her charges on Main Street three times a day.
“My husband used to call this town ‘Camelot.’ The support here is wonderful.”
The now-experienced volunteer has a tradition of taking all her pups to see a show at the Prospector Theater.
“The point is to gradually acclimatize the dog to different experiences so they are not overwhelmed,” she told The Press.
A trip to the movies, for example, introduces a puppy to the smell of popcorn, loud sounds, the vibration of the floor, and the sense of being surrounded by others.
It’s this genuine interaction with real-life occurrences — things a pup might eventually experience with a blind owner — that help the animal learn.
“A dog might be good at sitting on command in your living room, but he must be just as good sitting on command on Main Street, with the the kids eating ice cream out in front of Deborah Anne’s and cars — maybe even ambulances or fire trucks — going by.”
It can be hard to leave a companion one has grown close with over the past year, especially if the companions are as adorable as some of the labs Trapani has trained.
“Returning the dog to Guiding Eyes is like taking a child to college — you want to know if they’re having fun, what they’re eating, if they’re making friends,” she said.
“And when you drop off the dog at the kennel, you can’t even make eye contact with anyone because you’re crying so hard.”
Nonetheless, Trapani enjoys the volunteer work.
“It’s an incredible feeling of pride and gratitude,” she said. “Being part of a process where the dog you raised is providing for someone’s safety, independence, and companionship.”
The pups’ recipients are also grateful.
“I met one blind Jewish man at a graduation,” she recalled.
“In his faith, his wife is supposed to be called his ‘intended.’ But instead he felt like that was the dog.
“They become a part of each other.”