Robots, Technology, and A.I. — ‘Oh My!’

Robots, Technology, and A.I. — ‘Oh My!’

Dagmar Living Well
It seems to me that learning to live with ALS now requires a crash course in Technology 101. Gone are the days of having to rely solely on other human beings for essential daily living needs. Today, both the ALS patient and their caregiver are receiving help from assistive technology by way of apps, robotics, and smart appliances that only a decade ago were the dreams of science fiction.

Although some of the new technology was initially marketed to the luxury crowd, gadgets like robotic vacuum cleaners, automatic toilet bidets and home appliances remotely controlled by a single cellphone app are finding additional value in the homes of those with ALS.

Modified electric wheelchairs and enhanced eye-gaze computers are joined by a myriad of other innovations such as:

  • Obi: A robotic arm that scoops food from a dish to help patients eat independently;
  • HAL for Medical Use: A wearable robotic support that assists in walking;
  • Exo-Glove: A robotic glove that assists with hand movements.

Yes, all this assistive technology contributes to improved quality of life for those with ALS, while giving caregivers some much-needed relief. Dependence on technology is giving us newfound independence. But in reality, we’d rather not depend on them at all — because we’d rather not have ALS. But we do.

Learn as you go

For many of us, adapting to all this new technology is a matter of learn as you go.

My own “Human vs. Automation” experience occurred earlier this year when an Amazon Alexa arrived at our home. Since I’ve had dysarthria (trouble speaking due to ALS) for a couple years now, I’ve already been through a few less-than-satisfactory experiences with voice activation software.

For example, I’ll ask my cellphone, “Whads the bes bah-bee-cue wes-wrandt in too-son?” (What’s the best barbecue restaurant in Tucson?) My cellphone answers: “Here are your selections for Venice bars in Tulsa…”

However, I’d read comments online that an Alexa could learn to understand certain accents, so I had hope we could find a way to communicate.

My husband said, “Alexa …” Success as the blue ring of light lit up. Then came my turn. “Ahh-lek-sha,” I carefully pronounced. No response.

I tried speaking slow, fast, with a high pitch, a low pitch; all had no response from Alexa.

Then I tried the option of changing its name to Echo. I figured that for me to articulate only two syllables and eliminate the “x” and “s” sounds would help. Over the next few days my husband and I would share a laugh as I’d slowly recite, “Ehh-koh! Ick-koh! Ehk-khohhh!” in all variations that I could think of. Still nothing.

Finally, a light bulb went off in my head. I grabbed my cellphone and opened the “text-to-speak” app and typed, “Echo, what time is it?” Pointing my phone toward Echo, I pressed play. A monotone synthesized voice emanated from my phone and … the blue ring of light lit up on Echo! “The time is 2:15 p.m..” Echo answered.

OK, so it wasn’t an “E.T. phone home” moment — but they did talk to each other! And I’ve been using my cellphone proxy voice to give my commands to Echo ever since. Score one point for human ingenuity!

Computers seeking a cure

But here’s something I’m really excited about. It proves we’ve turned the corner from making software that simply assists us, to software that’s focused on our future well-being and finding a cure for ALS!

In this recent article in Reuters, How AI Robots Hunt New Drugs for Crippling Nerve DiseaseBen Hirschler describes how new powerful computers are sifting through all the available information on ALS. The goal is to find new leads for possible treatments and drugs, producing unbiased and thorough analysis of every data point possible.

Using this method, the Sheffield Institute of Translational Neuroscience has identified a potential drug that had “promising results in preventing the death of motor neurone cells and delaying disease onset.”

Last year in Arizona, five new genes linked to ALS were found by IBM’s Watson super-computer, reducing an effort from several years to only a few months.

In the end, assistive technology, robots and super-computers are working for us all, from helping us eat and talk to hopefully finding the cure for ALS. A goal that I’ll happily be the one to push the “on” switch and let ’em run!


Note: ALS News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of ALS News Today or its parent company, BioNews Services, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to ALS.

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  1. Charlie says:

    “promising results in preventing the death of motor neurone cells and delaying disease onset.”
    Again – how would you know to give this drug when someone is asymptomatic?

    • Steven says:

      very much look forward to the results of SITraN’s further studies and are hopeful for the positive impact that this drug could have for people living with ALS.” that’s all that they say they don’t tell us if it works or when they will start trying it out I wish they would say

    • Tim Bossie says:

      This is wonderful news. It is amazing to see how technology can help others and what these brilliant minds can come up with next.

  2. Charlie says:

    ‘Researchers expect to publish an abstract at the motor neurone disease Association 28th International Symposium in Boston, USA in December.’

    Timescales are hugely depressing for ALS patients. How many will become beyond help by the time they find out if this ‘compound’ is really effective ?

    Before we burst out with ‘hearts and flowers’ over technology, we need to see if this works in real-life human beings struck down dramatically by ALS. Why are they not proceeding to Phase 1 clinical trial? Are we still at the mouse stage?

    Not everyone in the ALS population has a slow-progression condition.

  3. Blane Ebersold says:

    It seems like using a text-to-speech app to talk to an app that converts speech to text in order to process input is a bit roundabout. Does Amazon Echo have some functionality that’s not available with apps that would use the text directly?

    I ask this because I worked for a company that made a product with very similar functionality to Echo. Our testing always included typing text input so we could separate issues of speech to text from the proper handing of text.

    I’m not familiar with Amazon’s application interface kits for developers there might be a way to access it with a text front end or potentially even via eye tracking software.

    • Dagmar Munn says:

      Yes, Blane – – I too chuckle at the irony of the process I have to use each time I want to give Echo a command. Expanding their app to accommodate more text commands would help. I wonder about the developer’s “voice recognition” settings; as my human voice is not recognized but random phrases from a nearby TV can easily set it off! Perhaps I should practice sounding more “synthesized” and less human? lol…. ? 🙂

      • Blane Ebersold says:

        Most voice recognition apps rely on software made by Nuance to do the speech to text conversion. The software can be tuned to recognize variations from the default.

      • Blane Ebersold says:

        The tuning can work quite well with strong accents. This could potentially be used to accommodate the phoneme shifts that occur with weakened speech-related muscles.

  4. Dawn Reddrik says:

    Hey guys,
    My Hue bridge recognized them immediately and I have had no issues with them so far. Only complaint is the price, hoping that in the future the price on these comes down to a more reasonable level as the technology matures and is adopted by more people.
    I hope this helps.
    Dawn Reddrik

    • Dagmar Munn says:

      You’re correct Dawn, as technology becomes more widely used that will help lower costs and…be more accessible to the disabled. Question: “recognized them…” who is “them?”

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