'Alexa, monitor my heart!'

23rd June 2020
'Alexa, monitor my heart!'
BreathJunior: Smart speakers are used to monitor a baby's breathing pattern: Inset: Prof Shyam Gollakota

An Indian-American researcher   demonstrates the potential of smart speakers to  detect cardiac arrest -- and potentially tell,   if a patient suffers from a chest infection, like coronavirus|
Bangalore, June 23 2020:
Beyond obeying  voice commands, smart speakers -- as researchers are finding -- have an even bigger  potential to monitor  the health of people around them, in real time.   
For some six  years now, a team at the Allen School of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Washington (UW)  in the US, has been exploring the exciting possibilities of  harnessing the passive listening  capability of a smart speaker to analyze sounds like a nearby person's breathing.   Associate  Professor  Shyam Gollakota  (an MIT ( US) and  IIT Madras alumnus) and his team,  used smart speakers to pick up the irregularities in people's breathing patterns, while they slept.
This story will appear in the July 2020 issue of Science Reporter (Vol 57 issue 7)
Specifically, they picked up the guttural, gasping noise that accompanies nearly half of all heart attacks. They used  large samples of breathing data to fine-tune an algorithm so that it could differentiate between harmless snoring  and what is known as agonal breathing that precedes a cardiac arrest.  The work is in proof-of-concept stage, but Prof Gollakota and his co-researcher Prof Jacob Sunshine of the university's School of Medicine, suggest what makes this technology so compelling:  it could help detect more  heart patients , before they had an episode and  in time  to be treated.
In a related project, Prof Gollakota and his team  developed a smart speaker to monitor the breathing  and the movement of babies , even as the devices transmitted white noise to soothe them to sleep.  Called BreathJunior, the  system records the white noise  as it  is reflected back, and detects the breathing motion of the infant's  tiny chest, otherwise difficult to catch without  a contact instrument. ( white noise is a combination of different sound frequencies).|
Covid-19 opportunity
Out of crisis  springs opportunity: the recent coronavirus pandemic presented  Prof Gollakota and his  associates with their greatest challenge.  The same technology which identified the  gasp of an imminent heart attack, could,  in theory, be used to detect a persistent cough that often characterises a  Covid-19 patient.  The team is also experimenting  with   making the speaker emit high frequency tones beyond  the human range of hearing ( like a dog whistle).  The reflections bouncing off a patient,  could  track chest motion and extract information about his or her breathing rate.  As you read this,  teams from UW  are testing in many homes  in Seattle, the hypothesis,  that  a person's breath and cough  might predict the onset of a respiratory infection. Imagine the huge advantage of being able to monitor  dozens of patients in a hospital ward, with no  human intervention, no equipment connected to them -- and no danger of medical  attenders picking up the infection! 
Dr Gollakota and Dr Sunshine "broke" the news of the exciting possibilities offered  by deploying smart speakers in just such a scenario in an op-ed  article in the New York Times in early April this year.  The editors  titled the story:  'Alexa, Do I have Coronavirus?',  a journalistic  overstatement perhaps  -- but one that  could well be true,  a few months hence, when  research translates into a usable  tool.  
The authors conclude: "Smart devices, which have connected us to family and friends during these difficult times, have an unrealized potential, and we should demand that platform providers and the government work to responsibly enable it."