Voice-assisted technology will transform Longevity

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Smart speakers and their underlying algorithms target improvements in both lifespan and healthspan yet investment and innovation remains ad hoc.

According to the US Institute of Medicine: “designing technologies today for an accessible tomorrow should be a national priority [1].” As the global population lives longer, the pressure is on to find ways for people to live more independently, reducing the burden on health systems, while improving the quality of life in people’s later years.

Longevity.Technology: The potential for voice-assisted technology to have a considerable impact on wellness and healthspan is huge and surprisingly, isn’t moving as fast as we’d expect. With rising medical costs for an aging population, any solution that keeps people living independently is financially viable and we’re expecting to see better funded and more integrated services rolled-out in 2020.

The TRL score for this Longevity.Technology domain is currently set at: ‘Technology has completed initial trials and demonstrates preliminary safety data.’

The TRL score for the technology addressed in this article is:’Technology has completed initial trials and demonstrates preliminary safety data.’

The expansion of interest in this area means that companies not previous linked with Longevity are using existing technologies to develop strategies for independent living.

Retail giant, Amazon, for example has spread the voice of Alexa all over the world by shifting over a hundred million smart speakers [2]. Consumer Intelligence Research Partners has estimated that Amazon’s Echo speakers hold 73% of the smart speaker market share in the US alone [3], and it is these Alexa devices with their voice-assisted technology that could be a crucial development in independent living: “Dave. I noticed that you haven’t taken your medication this morning – if you need help, would you like me to call your daughter for you?”

There are a range of Alexa-based patient solutions (called skills) that exist to help users manage their health, including Sugarpod, a “comprehensive diabetes care plan [4]” and H2O-Pal, a skill that monitors water intake, helping maintain hydration [5].

Libertana Home Health Care are developing a skill designed with the older population in mind, as it will record oral messages about health issues, symptoms and medical data like blood sugar levels and blood pressure, and use this information to issue reminders about medication or even to call for medical or care assistance. Libertana also cites the positive impact that the skill will have on mental health, as it will “break the loneliness cycle [6].”

Being able to support independent living means that medical care costs are reduced and quality of life is improved as people are able to live in their own home or in partly-supported facilities, enjoying their extended lives while still being monitored and receiving appropriate treatment.

There is, however, the hurdle of patient privacy to overcome; whether it’s GDPR, or HIPAA-compliance, in order for Alexa to flex its medical muscles in hospitals and other medical settings, Amazon will need to ensure that patients’ health information is protected and secured, a process which the company is currently investigating [7]. Alignment with its acquisition of PillPack will help it crack the $500bn prescription market.

While voice-assisted technologies may be super for encouraging you to drink and move about, or to take a daily tablet, we should be cautious about relying on them for diagnosis and treatment instructions. These are currently deduced by algorithms that look at outcomes of similar scenarios and make the most likely suggestion – this might accurate eight or nine times out of ten, but actual clinicians might spot additional evidence, ask more questions or ascertain something the patient is not telling them. Like all AI, however, the more evidence any Alexa skill gathers, the more reliable it will become. Regulatory approval of algorithms will speed-up as the US FDA looks to support adoption of new technologies [8].

It’s not just Amazon that sees the possibilities of smart speakers providing enhanced quality of life; Google’s Home and Apple’s HomePod are similar voice-assisted technologies that will be able to provide monitoring and assistance. Apple has clearly stated its intent to grow its healthcare operations, Amazon also has a $200m investment fund available for “voice technology innovation [8]”, so there are resources available for Longevity market solutions development from Amazon – a smart move as it looks to integrate its business operations further.

[1] https://bit.ly/2Oatyxp
[2] https://mklnd.com/2VQ3Ldm
[3] https://digitalhealthtoday.com/blog/amazon-alexa-for-healthcare/
[4] https://www.wellpepper.com/sugarpod
[5] https://www.amazon.com/Out-of-Galaxy-Inc-H2O-Pal/dp/B01FVZ4CHA
[6] https://bit.ly/2ybGN6d
[7] https://www.hipaajournal.com/amazon-alexa-hipaa-compliant/
[8] https://bit.ly/2D1STln
[9] https://developer.amazon.com/alexa-fund
Image: Moosey / Shutterstock.com
Eleanor Garth
Deputy Editor Now a science and medicine journalist, Eleanor worked as a consultant for university spin-out companies and provided research support at Imperial College London and various London hospitals in a former life.

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