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Every breath you take…or how smart speakers can save lives

15. July 2019 Published by Raphael Doerr

“Every breath you take, every move you make, every bond you break, every step you take, I’ll be watching you. Every single day. Every word you say….” When the British group “The Police” with lead singer Sting brought out the song “Every Breath you Take” in 1983, there was no such thing as Alexa or Siri, and the three scientists and founders of Sound Life Sciences – Shyamnath Gollakota, Jacob Sunshine and Nick Mark – weren’t even born. But perhaps the song inspired them later. We don’t know, but the result is astounding. And shows what’s possible in the field of preventive healthcare in the near future by combining a smart speaker, such as the Gigaset L800HX, with integration of Alexa and the right software – such as the ability to recognize and avoid heart attacks.

Audio cues detect the threat of a heart attack

A heart attack can also occur at home – and the victim has no chance of summoning help. Smart assistants like Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant could save lives in such situations in the future. University of Washington researchers have crafted a software app that can detect the audio cues of cardiac arrest – especially the distinctive gasps for air – and then issue an emergency call on its own. To enable that, according to the U.S. magazine Engadget, the scientists have analyzed a large number of 911 calls, the emergency number in the U.S.

Thanks to artificial intelligence, according to the digital platform Lead, “the software detects whether a user is having a heart attack with an accuracy of around 99 percent.” Assistants like Alexa or Siri would then inquire again whether everything is OK. If there is no reply, they automatically alert the emergency doctor and supply him or her with all important data, such as the person’s name and address. So as to put the development on the market as quickly as possible, the scientists have founded their own company Sound Life Sciences.

How the app works

The software uses the integrated microphones and loudspeakers of the smart speakers or smartphones and converts them into a short-range sonar system that can detect breathing difficulties. The new Gigaset L800HX smart speaker is especially suitable for that thanks to its refined microphone technology and echo cancellation. Basically, the solution works much like a bat’s sonar system. Bats use a sonar system to find their way about in the dark or locate prey better. They can determine the distance to reflecting objects by sending out their own ultrasound waves and using their echoes. The faster the echo is returned, the closer the object reflecting the ultrasound waves is.





Learning from bats

The loudspeakers constantly emit inaudible “chirps” and these sound waves are reflected from the user and are then returned to the phone’s microphone. While the sound waves rebound back and forth between the phone and user, the app tracks all the changes to the acoustic signal that indicate a movement. If a person is breathing regularly, the chest’s up-and-down motion generates tiny variations in the signal, which the app registers as normal. If a person breathes extremely slowly (less than seven breaths a minute) or stops respiring 16completely, the signal remains constant and the app diagnoses that something is not right. The app triggers an alarm if the person does not breathe after 30 seconds. If the user does not respond, the friends and family members he or she has defined as contacts in an emergency are automatically called.

“We designed the system to have a multi-tiered approach where you’re not going to disturb the user if you just have a single central apnea event or you have a 10-second duration where the person doesn’t breathe,” emphasizes Shyamnath Gollakota, an associate professor in computer science and engineering at Washington and founder of Sound Life Sciences.

Sheila Vakharia, a manager at the U.S. Drug Policy Alliance, believes the app could be path-breaking for further applications. “I find it to be the exact kind of technology and innovation we need to be thinking about: How do we develop technologies that acknowledge that people are going to engage in high risk practices, how do we develop solutions that actually are grounded in reality?”

Even though many questions relating to data protection still have to be clarified and the app is not available in Germany yet, the example shows what potential smart speakers in conjunction with VPAs and innovative apps have. It might not be to everyone’s liking for their breathing to be constantly monitored by a smart speaker, but such a solution could save the life of people with a heart condition in an emergency – and that’s what counts …

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