How AI and voice-use interfaces can keep people healthy

At the 2019 MIT Space2 workshop, TechRepublic Senior Writer Teena Maddox discusses how voice-use interfaces can be used to keep people healthy, particularly in small, confined spaces with Google’s Cathy Pearl. The following is an edited transcript of the interview.

Teena Maddox: Tell me a little bit about what you’re presenting here at the MIT Spaces in Space workshop.

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Cathy Pearl: I’ll be talking about ways in which voice-user interfaces can be used to help people stay healthy. Particularly in small confined spaces. There have been applications of voice that can assist people with things like daily routines, maybe taking their medication and reminding them to do the basic things to take care of perhaps a particular disease they might have, or something like that. It can also be helpful because it’s more engaging than, say, simply filling out a checkbox or writing down your blood pressure every day and emailing it to your doctor. It can be more engaging to have a conversation about it to get you through those tasks that will help you.

Teena Maddox: All right. And how about, how can AI be used to help with your behavioral health and mental health in confined settings?

Cathy Pearl: One of the nice things about something like a voice-user interface is that people already know how to talk, and rather than have to learn a complex health application, or a new way of doing something, you can just speak to the system. It can guide you through the tasks or the questions you need, and you don’t have to spend that additional mental effort on top of something that might already be difficult, like taking your blood pressure every day, or something that you don’t really want to do necessarily. Being able to be guided through it through conversation takes some of that burden off of the task.

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Teena Maddox: In space, if you’re wearing gloves, you can’t use your hands for things, so how can your voice help?

Cathy Pearl: Voice is great for hands-free situations, whether you’re in the kitchen cooking, whether you’re holding a baby, or whether you’re in space, you’re outside, maybe fixing a solar panel, and your gloves are pretty bulky and difficult to manage, but your voice is a tool that’s with you all the time, and you can interact with a lot of types of technology just through that.

One other thing I really like about voice is that it may be a bit of a way out of our use of screens. Right now a lot of us are concerned about screen addiction and how that affects our mental health. There was a research study recently by NPR and Edison Research that showed about half the time people are using smart speakers, it’s with other people. It may be a way of bringing us maybe back out of that, when we get sunk into our devices, when we can all ask it a question, everyone can hear the question, and hear it and respond to us. It joins our conversation rather than taking us away. So that’s another reason that I’m excited about voice.

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