Researchers Turn to Amazon and Google For Bedroom Health Surveillance

By Jason Erickson

Predictive medicine – or “precision health” as it is sometimes known – is a trend in healthcare that is growing exponentially. As I’ve reported previously, Amazon and Google are among the many companies that are heavily investing in this area. Since predictive medicine relies upon real-time monitoring and artificial intelligence for analysis, the two tech behemoths are perfectly positioned to transition into a range of healthcare applications.

A new press release from the University of Washington highlights how researchers are aiming to leverage the growth of in-home smart tech devices to not only detect adverse health events but trigger calls for professional assistance.  In this case, researchers cite incidences of “agonal breathing” that often precedes cardiac arrest while sleeping. (Emphasis added)

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Researchers at the University of Washington have developed a new tool to monitor people for cardiac arrest while they’re asleep without touching them. A new skill for a smart speaker– like Google Home and Amazon Alexa — or smartphone lets the device detect the gasping sound of agonal breathing and call for help. On average, the proof-of-concept tool, which was developed using real agonal breathing instances captured from 911 calls, detected agonal breathing events 97% of the time from up to 20 feet (or 6 meters) away. The findings are published June 19 in npj Digital Medicine.

“A lot of people have smart speakers in their homes, and these devices have amazing capabilities that we can take advantage of,” said co-corresponding author Shyam Gollakota, an associate professor in the UW’s Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering. “We envision a contactless system that works by continuously and passively monitoring the bedroom for an agonal breathing event, and alerts anyone nearby to come provide CPR. And then if there’s no response, the device can automatically call 911.”

In order to determine the efficacy of this approach, the team recorded 911 calls to emergency services and analyzed the hundreds of clips.

The team captured the recordings on different smart devices — an Amazon Alexa, an iPhone 5s and a Samsung Galaxy S4 — and used various machine learning techniques to boost the dataset to 7,316 positive clips.

“We played these examples at different distances to simulate what it would sound like if it the patient was at different places in the bedroom,” said first author Justin Chan, a doctoral student in the Allen School. “We also added different interfering sounds such as sounds of cats and dogs, cars honking, air conditioning, things that you might normally hear in a home.”


The team envisions this algorithm could function like an app, or a skill for Alexa that runs passively on a smart speaker or smartphone while people sleep.

“This could run locally on the processors contained in the Alexa. It’s running in real time, so you don’t need to store anything or send anything to the cloud,” Gollakota said.

“Right now, this is a good proof of concept using the 911 calls in the Seattle metropolitan area,” he said. “But we need to get access to more 911 calls related to cardiac arrest so that we can improve the accuracy of the algorithm further and ensure that it generalizes across a larger population.”

Right away, one might notice the reference to the many other sounds that are picked up during these recordings. This seems fine when a person triggers the recording via self-directed emergency calls to 911, but raises major questions about privacy when smart home devices are passively listening 24/7 (in the bedroom) in the name of health security.

Also of note is how this massive trove of data will be secured from hacking when it’s a near-daily event that both Amazon and Google have either had data leaked from these devices, been hacked into, or have misused the data outright themselves. Of course, medical researchers can’t be expected to answer for these surveillance and privacy concerns — and they certainly don’t in their press release — but let’s hope that this is strongly considered before rolling this out on a wide scale.

Lastly, it must also be mentioned that insurance companies are increasingly interested in gaining access to this health data and have begun “incentivizing” the use of real-time health monitoring by offering lower premiums. Of course, all you will need to do is let them into every aspect of your life … including your bedroom.

Image credit: Sarah McQuate/University of Washington

Jason Erickson writes for This article (Researchers Turn to Amazon and Google For Bedroom Health Surveillance) may be republished in part or in full with author attribution and source link.

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