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As his eyes fail him, Seattle man works toward technology to un-blur his world

Amir Afrasiabi works in computer vision and artificial intelligence.
Gabriel Spitzer
Amir Afrasiabi works in computer vision and artificial intelligence.

This story originally aired on April 27, 2019. 


Amir Afrasiabi had glasses as a kid. No big deal. But he found he had to constantly get new and more powerful ones, and he still seemed to struggle to see.

Amir would later discover that he had a degenerative eye condition called keratoconus. It would eventually reroute the course of his career and his life.

But as a young architecture student growing up in Iran, he didn’t know any of that yet. He just knew that he’d strain to see the board in class or make out the lines on a computer screen. And if that was puzzling to Amir, it really didn’t make sense to his professors.

“That was a nightmare,” Amir says. “I couldn’t see what the professors were writing on the board. So they ended up yelling at me … I was really frustrated.”

When he was eventually diagnosed in his late teens, his eye doctor told him he had good news and bad news.

“The good news is you don’t have to go to (compulsory) military service,” Amir recalled the doctor telling him. “The bad news is that you can never be a good architect. That was really hard to hear.”  

That set off a whole series of unexpected changes. Amir transitioned from architecture to industrial engineering, where he could more easily use adaptive technology to help him see what he was working on.

And he started on a string of new medical interventions. First came special glass contact lenses — they were terribly uncomfortable, but allowed him to see in a way he’d never seen before.

“Oh my God, I can’t believe there are textures. I remember I was sitting in the office on the chair and looking down, and the tile — I could see the lines between the tiles. I never knew,” he says.

Amir moved to the United States and found work at an aerospace company, in the fields of computer vision and artificial intelligence.

Now, he’s learning everything he can about AI and augmented reality, hoping someday to develop technology that could make the world a little clearer for people like him.

He shared his story with Sound Effect Host Gabriel Spitzer. Click the “Listen” link above to hear their conversation.




Gabriel Spitzer is a former KNKX reporter, producer and host who covered science and health and worked on the show Sound Effect.