Josh Miele, in a purple dress shirt, sits at a desk in an office, he is typing and looking at a computer screen, there are chairs and desks in the background
Josh Miele, an Amazon principal accessibility researcher, was selected a 2021 MacArthur Foundation Fellow. He has spent his career developing tools to make the world more accessible for people who are blind and visually impaired.
Meg Coyle / Amazon

Josh Miele: Amazon’s resident MacArthur Fellow

Miele has merged a lifelong passion for science with a mission to make the world more accessible for people with disabilities.

In September 2021, when Josh Miele, an Amazon principal accessibility researcher, got a text from someone at the MacArthur Foundation requesting a phone call, his heart leapt. For anyone in the arts and sciences, a MacArthur Fellowship, known as the “genius” grant, is akin to winning the lottery. You can’t apply for the $625,000 fellowship; it just arrives, mysteriously, out of the ether with a phone call from the foundation.

For Miele, who is blind and has spent his career developing tools to make the world more accessible for people who are blind and visually impaired, a MacArthur grant had long been a fantastical dream.

Joshua Miele, Adaptive Technology Designer | 2021 MacArthur Fellow

“Everybody has things that they imagine might happen to them,” Miele said. “And some things are more realistic than others. You think, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to get married, have kids, get a great job at Amazon, and, yes, wouldn’t it be nice to get a MacArthur grant?’ Some dreams you can work on and make happen yourself, and some you have to wait and hope for. I won’t deny that one of my long-time fantasies was that I would get a MacArthur Fellowship.”

Assuming the call was to ask his opinion about a possible recipient, he was ecstatic to learn he was among the 25 2021 fellows selected by the foundation. The five-year grant provides money that recipients can use however they want. For someone like Miele, who spent years in a non-profit accessibility thinktank in an endless quest for grant money, the MacArthur news left him with sweaty palms, ringing ears, and pure joy.

“It was extraordinary,” he declared.

A devotion to accessibility

Yet given his life’s work, the grant was a surprise to no one who knows Miele. After graduating from the University of California, Berkeley with a PhD in psychoacoustics in 2003, Miele worked for 16 years at the non-profit Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute in San Francisco as a principal scientist and researcher. He devoted his life to fostering accessibility for the blind and visually impaired.

Josh using a refreshable braille display in his home office.jpg
Josh Miele using a refreshable braille display in his home office in Berkeley, California.
Stephen Lam/Amazon

He began working with Amazon Lab126, which designs and engineers Amazon devices and services, in 2019. There Miele joined the group of designers and developers who built the Echo family of devices, Kindle, Fire tablets, Fire TV, Amazon Basics Microwaves, and a growing list of innovative products.

His work is with the accessibility team that seeks to make Amazon products intuitively useful for individuals with disabilities.

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His aim is to ensure that the designers, product managers, and team members have as clear an understanding as possible of the user experience for customers with disabilities.

“What I’m doing is making sure that the folks who are doing the design understand the customers they are designing for,” Miele explained. “That’s a special and important part of the puzzle because some people doing the work don’t have disabilities themselves and don’t innately have the deep understanding of what the customer requirements are.”

Improving Show and Tell

For example, when Miele joined Lab126, the group was working on Show and Tell, an Alexa feature for Echo Show devices that uses the camera and voice interface to help people who are blind identify products. Employing advanced computer vision and machine learning models for object recognition, Show and Tell can be a vital tool in the kitchen of a customer who is blind or has low vision. A person holds up an object and asks, “Alexa, what am I holding?” and gets an immediate answer.

New Amazon Echo Feature Increases Accessibility (With Audio Description) | Amazon News

The project was stymied, however, by the developers’ struggle to match each product perfectly. If they didn’t get a 100-percent match, the team felt they had failed.

Miele helped the team understand that they needed only to provide useful context, even just a word or two, for a person who is blind or visually impaired to identify the product. The team focused on kitchen and pantry items — things that come in cans, boxes, bottles, and tubes. The goal: Recognize items in Amazon’s vast product catalogue, or if that wasn’t possible, recognize brands and logos that could give the customer enough information to know what they held in their hand.

“If I touch a can of something, I know it’s a can,” Miele explained, “but I don’t know if it’s a can of black beans or pineapple. So, if I’m making chili, and I open a can of pineapple, I’m going to be pretty irritated.”

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“I helped design an interaction model that would look for an exact match,” he added, “but if Alexa didn’t get that, it would look for brand recognition. Alexa would look for logos or text that would offer at least some clue as to what was in the can.”

The team created what he called “a gentle letdown curve.” If Alexa can’t find the exact information, Alexa politely apologizes — but doesn’t give up. “I don’t know what it is, but I saw the words `whole black beans’ on the label,” Alexa says. It isn’t an exact match, Miele noted, at least you know what is in the can, which is still incredibly helpful.

Additionally, Miele worked with the team to create audio feedback where Alexa guides the customer to hold the object in the camera’s field of view. Without that, Alexa might be unable to identify the product and frustration could set in.

“Doing things the right way”

Miele also has provided important input into the team’s braille display support and Braille Screen Input technology.

“The most important thing I do is work with my colleagues to test these experiences with real blind and visually impaired customers,” Miele said. “Usability testing is a fairly well known art, but when you’re testing with specialized populations, like people who are blind or deaf, or people using wheelchairs, there are certain adjustments that you want to make to your research protocol so that you are doing things the right way.”

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For example, Miele helped the design team understand that it was important that things like consent forms be made accessible.

“Designing research protocols so that people with disabilities are comfortable and properly accommodated is a really important part of research,” Miele said. “The very best way to ensure that the thing you’re designing works for the people you are designing it for is to have people on the team who are going to be customers for that experience.”

A remarkable journey

Miele’s story is a remarkable one, but he discourages others from focusing too much on what happened to him as a child, and instead to consider who he is and what he’s accomplished. He was blinded at age 4 when an assailant in his Brooklyn, New York neighborhood poured sulfuric acid over his head, which blinded and disfigured him.

Josh Miele is seen wearing a suit, sitting in a chair while playing a bass guitar, there is a mic stand and an amp in the foreground
Josh Miele plays bass guitar and has developed a new braille code for writing jazz chord charts.
Barbara Butkus

With the support of incredible parents, teachers and colleagues, he has never thought of himself as being less capable.

He has a full and accomplished life. Miele is married and has two teenage children. He plays the bass guitar and has developed a new braille code for writing jazz chord charts. He is a serious cook and woodworker and loves to hike. He is a proud member of the disability community.

He doesn’t focus on what happened to him because for him, it was simply the challenge life handed him.

“It wasn’t a choice I made,” he said about his positive outlook. “It never even occurred to me to feel sorry for myself. I just wanted to go through life and do the things I was interested in.”

An important epiphany

Miele’s love of science emerged early. He wanted to build rockets, become a space scientist, and explore outer space. Shortly after beginning an undergraduate physics degree at UC Berkeley, he interned with NASA, where he worked in planetary science. It wasn’t until later when he took a job at a software startup named Berkeley Systems, where he worked on some of the first graphical user interface (GUI) screen readers for the blind and visually impaired. That produced an epiphany.

“I realized that the work I was doing in accessibility was both rewarding to me and something that not many people could do at the level I was able to do it,” he recalled. “I thought, ‘There are plenty of people who could be great planetary scientists but there were not a lot of people who could design cool stuff for blind people and meet the needs of the people who were going to use it.’”

Josh Miele, standing, gives advice to a student who is seated during a soldering workshop. Several students are sitting at a large table with soldering equipment.
Josh Miele, seen here leading a soldering workshop, says, “I am blind and that is my superpower in this. I’ve been working in accessibility for a really long time and not just for people who are blind and visually impaired, but for people with all kinds of disabilities."
Jean Miele

His colleague at Berkeley Systems, Peter Korn, was recruited to join the Amazon Lab126 accessibility team in 2013. One of his first moves was to create an external advisory council of disability experts and he asked Miele to join the council. Korn offered council members a peek behind the curtain at some of the lab’s projects. After one of those sessions, Miele took Korn aside and said, “You know, I’d really love to play a bigger role in helping bring some of those technologies you’re talking about to life.”

Korn responded, “Well, I would love to have you.”

Korn, who has been a colleague and friend for 30 years, was among those who were not surprised at Miele’s MacArthur grant.

“I’ve been incredibly impressed by his creativity, his design sense, his energy and passion, and his inventiveness,” Korn said. “He has a really good sense of what somebody who doesn’t understand technology faces.”

“My superpower”

“I am blind and that is my superpower in this,” Miele said. “I’ve been working in accessibility for a really long time and not just for people who are blind and visually impaired, but for people with all kinds of disabilities. I not only have a fairly good understanding of what some of the basic requirements are for a wide range of disabilities, but I also know how to connect with those communities and bring their voices into the conversation with the designers, developers, and product managers.”

I love accessibility. There’s a social justice aspect to it. You’re working on inclusion and accessibility of information.
Josh Miele

After many years in the non-profit sector, Miele is happy with his move to the technology industry.

“I love what I do,” he declared. “I love accessibility. There’s a social justice aspect to it. You’re working on inclusion and accessibility of information. You’re empowering people to do the things they want to do, which is extremely exciting for me. I’m strongly motivated to build cool things for blind people. I want blind people’s lives to be better. I also really like challenges, finding new, fun exciting things to work on and at Amazon, there is absolutely no shortage of cool, interesting, thought-provoking design challenges for accessibility.”

To learn more about Amazon Accessibility, please visit amazon.com/accessibility.

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Are you interested in changing the Digital Reading Experience? We are from Kindle Books Team looking for a set of Scientists to take the reading experience in Kindle to next level with a set of innovations! We envision Kindle as the place where readers find the best manifestation of all written content optimized with features that enable them to get the most out of reading, and creators are able to realize their vision to customers quickly and at scale. Every time customers open their content, regardless of surface, they start or restart their reading in a familiar, useful and engaging place. We achieve this by building a strong foundation of core experiences and act as a force multiplier and partner for content creators (directly or indirectly) to easily innovate on top of Kindle's purpose built content experience stack in a simple and extensible way. We will achieve this by providing a best-in-class reading experience, unique content experiences, and remaining agile in meeting the evolving needs and preferences of our users. Our goal is to foster long-lasting reading habits and make us the preferred destination for enriching literary experiences. We are building a In The Book Science team and looking for Scientists, who are passionate about Reading and are willing to take Reading to the next level. Every Book is a complex structure with different entities, layout, format and semantics, with more than 17MM eBooks in our catalog. We are looking for experts in all domains like core NLP, Generative AI, CV and Deep Learning Techniques for unlocking capabilities like analysis, enhancement, curation, moderation, translation, transformation and generation in Books based on Content structure, features, Intent & Synthesis. Scientists will focus on Inside the book content and semantically learn the different entities to enhance the Reading experience overall (Kindle & beyond). They have an opportunity to influence in 2 major phases of life-cycle - Publishing (Creation of Books process) and Reading experience (building engaging features & representation in the book thereby driving reading engagement). Key job responsibilities - 3+ years of building machine learning models for business application experience - PhD, or Master's degree and 2+ years of applied research experience - Knowledge of programming languages such as C/C++, Python, Java or Perl - Experience programming in Java, C++, Python or related language - You have expertise in one of the applied science disciplines, such as machine learning, natural language processing, computer vision, Deep learning - You are able to use reasonable assumptions, data, and customer requirements to solve problems. - You initiate the design, development, execution, and implementation of smaller components with input and guidance from team members. - You work with SDEs to deliver solutions into production to benefit customers or an area of the business. - You assume responsibility for the code in your components. You write secure, stable, testable, maintainable code with minimal defects. - You understand basic data structures, algorithms, model evaluation techniques, performance, and optimality tradeoffs. - You follow engineering and scientific method best practices. You get your designs, models, and code reviewed. You test your code and models thoroughly - You participate in team design, scoping and prioritization discussions. You are able to map a business goal to a scientific problem and map business metrics to technical metrics. - You invent, refine and develop your solutions to ensure they are meeting customer needs and team goals. You keep current with research trends in your area of expertise and scrutinize your results. A day in the life You will be working with a group of talented scientists on researching algorithm and running experiments to test solutions to improve our experience. This will involve collaboration with partner teams including engineering, PMs, data annotators, and other scientists to discuss data quality, model development and productionizing the same. You will mentor other scientists, review and guide their work, help develop roadmaps for the team. We are open to hiring candidates to work out of one of the following locations: Bangalore, IND | Bangalore, KA, IND
US, WA, Seattle
Selling Partner Promotions is seeking a Sr. Economist to use econometric and machine learning techniques to help offer Customers high quality deals and promotions. This role will be a key member of a team of scientists supporting the Pricing and Promotions related business. The Sr. Economist will work closely with other research scientists, machine learning experts, and economists to design and run experiments, research new algorithms, and find new ways to improve Seller Pricing and Promotions to optimize the Customer experience. Key job responsibilities - Build economic models to quantify the causal impact of pricing actions and promotions on customers and sellers. - Build models to define, measure and optimize for high quality deals - Define and execute an extensive experimental roadmap to test hypotheses and validate the outputs of models. - Create models that allow an optimization of selling partner ROI and customer long-term value. - Evaluate and validate the proposed models via offline benchmark tests as well as online A/B tests in production. - Publish and present your work at internal and external scientific venues. We are open to hiring candidates to work out of one of the following locations: Seattle, WA, USA
IN, KA, Bengaluru
The Amazon Artificial Generative Intelligence (AGI) team in India is seeking a talented, self-driven Applied Scientist to work on prototyping, optimizing, and deploying ML algorithms within the realm of Generative AI. Key job responsibilities - Research, experiment and build Proof Of Concepts advancing the state of the art in AI & ML for GenAI. - Collaborate with cross-functional teams to architect and execute technically rigorous AI projects. - Thrive in dynamic environments, adapting quickly to evolving technical requirements and deadlines. - Engage in effective technical communication (written & spoken) with coordination across teams. - Conduct thorough documentation of algorithms, methodologies, and findings for transparency and reproducibility. - Publish research papers in internal and external venues of repute - Support on-call activities for critical issues We are open to hiring candidates to work out of one of the following locations: Bengaluru, KA, IND
US, WA, Seattle
Are you inspired by invention? Is problem solving through teamwork in your DNA? Do you like the idea of seeing how your work impacts the bigger picture? Answer yes to any of these and you’ll fit right in here at Amazon Robotics. We are a collaborative, smart team of doers that work passionately to apply cutting edge advances in robotics and software to solve real-world challenges that will transform our customers’ experiences in ways we can’t even imagine yet. We invent new improvements every day. We are Amazon Robotics and we will give you the tools and support you need to invent with us in ways that are rewarding, fulfilling and fun. Amazon Robotics is seeking enthusiastic Applied Scientists with a passion for robotic research. Our team works on challenging and high-impact projects within robotics. Examples of projects include allocating resources to complete a million orders a day, coordinating the motion of thousands of robots, autonomous navigation in warehouses, identifying objects and damage, and learning how to grasp all the products Amazon sells. Key job responsibilities • Research, design, implement and evaluate complex perception, motion planning, and decision making algorithms integrating across multiple disciplines and leveraging machine learning. • Create experiments and prototype implementations of new learning algorithms and prediction techniques. • Work closely with software engineering team members to drive scalable, real-time implementations. • Collaborate with machine learning and robotic controls experts to implement and deploy algorithms, such as machine learning models. • Collaborate closely with hardware engineering team members on developing systems from prototyping to production level. • Represent Amazon in academia community through publications and scientific presentations. • Work with stakeholders across hardware, science, and operations teams to iterate on systems design and implementation. A day in the life Amazon offers a full range of benefits that support you and eligible family members, including domestic partners and their children. Benefits can vary by location, the number of regularly scheduled hours you work, length of employment, and job status such as seasonal or temporary employment. The benefits that generally apply to regular, full-time employees include: 1. Medical, Dental, and Vision Coverage 2. Maternity and Parental Leave Options 3. Paid Time Off (PTO) 4. 401(k) Plan If you are not sure that every qualification on the list above describes you exactly, we'd still love to hear from you! At Amazon, we value people with unique backgrounds, experiences, and skillsets. If you’re passionate about this role and want to make an impact on a global scale, please apply! We are open to hiring candidates to work out of one of the following locations: Seattle, WA, USA
US, CA, Pasadena
The Amazon Web Services (AWS) Center for Quantum Computing in Pasadena, CA, is looking to hire a Quantum Research Scientist. You will join a multi-disciplinary team of theoretical and experimental physicists, materials scientists, and hardware and software engineers working at the forefront of quantum computing. You should have a deep and broad knowledge of experimental measurement techniques. Candidates with a track record of original scientific contributions in experimental device physics will be preferred. We are looking for candidates with strong engineering principles, resourcefulness and a bias for action, superior problem solving, and excellent communication skills. Working effectively within a team environment is essential. As a research scientist you will be expected to work on new ideas and stay abreast of the field of experimental quantum computation. AWS Utility Computing (UC) provides product innovations — from foundational services such as Amazon’s Simple Storage Service (S3) and Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2), to consistently released new product innovations that continue to set AWS’s services and features apart in the industry. As a member of the UC organization, you’ll support the development and management of Compute, Database, Storage, Internet of Things (Iot), Platform, and Productivity Apps services in AWS, including support for customers who require specialized security solutions for their cloud services. Key job responsibilities As a research scientist you will be responsible for building experiments that encompass the integrated stack: design, fabrication, cryogenics, signal chain, and control stack software. Based on your tests you will provide recommendations that improve our next-generation quantum processors. About the team Why AWS? Amazon Web Services (AWS) is the world’s most comprehensive and broadly adopted cloud platform. We pioneered cloud computing and never stopped innovating — that’s why customers from the most successful startups to Global 500 companies trust our robust suite of products and services to power their businesses. Inclusive Team Culture Here at AWS, it’s in our nature to learn and be curious. Our employee-led affinity groups foster a culture of inclusion that empower us to be proud of our differences. Ongoing events and learning experiences, including our Conversations on Race and Ethnicity (CORE) and AmazeCon (gender diversity) conferences, inspire us to never stop embracing our uniqueness. Mentorship & Career Growth We’re continuously raising our performance bar as we strive to become Earth’s Best Employer. That’s why you’ll find endless knowledge-sharing, mentorship and other career-advancing resources here to help you develop into a better-rounded professional. Work/Life Balance We value work-life harmony. Achieving success at work should never come at the expense of sacrifices at home, which is why we strive for flexibility as part of our working culture. When we feel supported in the workplace and at home, there’s nothing we can’t achieve in the cloud. Hybrid Work We value innovation and recognize this sometimes requires uninterrupted time to focus on a build. We also value in-person collaboration and time spent face-to-face. Our team affords employees options to work in the office every day or in a flexible, hybrid work model near one of our U.S. Amazon offices. We are open to hiring candidates to work out of one of the following locations: Pasadena, CA, USA