Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Older adults buddy up with Amazon’s Alexa


When Willie Kate Friar wakes in the middle of the night, the octogenarian doesn’t have to turn on the lights or crane her neck to find out the time. She simply asks her digital assistant, who responds in a life-like voice.
“I’ve found Alexa is like a companion,” Friar said of Amazon Echo’s new voice-controlled assistant, a black cylinder called Alexa.

A Panama-based retiree who writes and lectures on cruise boats, Friar is recuperating from a recent fall and asks Alexa to play music during her physical therapy sessions. “The music lifts my spirits,” she said.


Widely introduced last summer, Amazon’s AMZN, +0.47%   new wireless speaker has won praise from tech gurus for its invisible technology that responds to spoken commands and questions. Voice commands can prompt Alexa to do everything from playing music to adding items to an Amazon shopping list to answering questions and giving weather, traffic and news updates. (Think of the device as a way to connect to the Internet by speaking instead of typing.)
The device is also gaining support among disabled adults and the elderly. Among the more than 30,000 customer reviews on the Amazon website are those from caregivers for wheelchair-bound relatives who love the control that Alexa gives them over their environment, and also from family members of older adults who enjoy Alexa’s companionship and help.
Alexa wasn’t designed for older adults, and experts say that might be part of its appeal with that demographic. The device avoids the bland aesthetic that has traditionally characterized assistive devices, which turns off consumers who don’t self-identify as old — that is, pretty much everyone. 
“They were smart to make it look like a cylinder,” said Tony Gentry, an occupational therapist and director of the Assistive Technology for Cognition Laboratory at Virginia Commonwealth University. “People can project their own imagination onto it.”
Gentry recognizes Alexa’s promise to alleviate loneliness in older adults and plans to test the device with some of his elderly clients soon. Robots “don’t have to do much to provide a sense of companionship,” he said, noting how people are quick to anthropomorphize their Roomba robotic vacuum cleaners.
Among older adults, a sense of companionship can mean the difference between sickness and health. Research has shown how loneliness causes people to become physically ill. 
Friar lives alone. She received her Alexa as a gift during a visit to the U.S. last Christmas. She brought the device back to Panama and connected it to WiFi herself. “People should recognize how easy it is to set up,” she said. 
To set up Alexa, users need an electrical outlet and a Wifi connection. The latter can come from a desktop computer, smartphone or tablet. Friar owns an Amazon Fire smartphone, along with four computers, two tablets and two Kindle e-readers. She’s unusually connected for her age: only 30% of adults age 71 and over who are online own a smartphone, and of those just a tiny fraction use the phone intensively, according to Forrester Research, a market research firm.
Ron Grant, 63, owns a smartphone, and he’s eager to buy an Alexa, too. “It looks like it’d be fun and handy,” said Grant, of Moore, Okla. who was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease at age 55. For now, he’s holding off buying one, hoping Amazon will lower the device’s $179.99 price tag. 
Grant enjoys listening to music and would welcome the ease of asking Alexa to play his favorite tunes. He sometimes has hand tremors and would also like a way to turn on the television and adjust the channels and volume without fumbling with the remote control. Alexa can be programed to turn the TV on and off.
For those with dementia, Alexa can tell the date and time, as well as respond to questions whose answers might have slipped from memory, such as “When was Ronald Reagan president?”
Yet given the devastating progression of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias, experts say Alexa’s usefulness can only last so long. The device will eventually become confusing and possibly anxiety-provoking as people forget how to use it. “The ability to say, ‘what is the traffic like?’ and ‘buy me some paper towels’ is valuable, but it’s a short window,” said Niles Frantz, a spokesman for the Alzheimer’s Association.
Another limitation when it comes to older adults is that Alexa cannot currently dial 9-1-1, a capability that online reviewers have requested. With that functionality, the device could replace on-call emergency buttons, which many older adults eschew. A spokeswoman for Amazon confirmed that Alexa cannot currently make calls and declined to say whether that functionality may be added. 
Alexa does have an Ask My Buddy function to help users in an emergency. Developed by one of the third-party firms that Amazon has invited to create “skills” for Alexa, this function can send phone calls or text messages to up to five contacts. A user would say, “Alexa, ask my buddy Bob to send help” and Bob would get an alert to check in on his friend. 
For her part, Friar would like Alexa to learn Spanish. An Amazon spokeswoman confirmed that Alexa speaks only English today but stressed that the device is “always getting smarter” as the company adds new functionality on a regular basis. 
When Alexa can’t yet say “hola,” Friar enjoys showing the device off to her local friends: “I think Amazon should make a big effort to market it to older adults.”

Monday, March 6, 2017

Brain-controlled Robots

US researchers have taken a step toward telepathic communication from people to robots, by developing a mind-reading device that allows humans to correct a machine instantly with nothing more than brainwaves.

The prototype brain-computer interface developed by Massachusetts Institute of Technology enables a human observer to transmit an immediate error message to a robot, telling it to fix a mistake when it does something wrong.

Technology that allows humans to interact with robots intuitively through their thoughts could have a range of industrial and medical applications, from robotic limbs to self-driving vehicles.

“Imagine being able to instantaneously tell a robot to do a certain action, without needing to type a command, push a button or even say a word,” said Daniela Rus, director of MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. “A streamlined approach like that would improve our abilities to supervise factory robots, driverless cars and other technologies we haven’t even invented yet.”

The MIT prototype uses an electroencephalography (EEG) cap to record the human brain activity.

While it was designed to handle simple binary choice activities — in this case sorting objects into two categories — Professor Rus hopes that after further research it will enable people to interact with more complex robots.

Brain-computer interfaces are one of the hottest research fields in science.

Other labs are developing them to let disabled people operate robotic limbs or to give communications ability to locked-in patients who are too paralysed even to blink their eyes.

The problem is that these systems generally need either an electronic implant or, when using an EEG, considerable training to get the computer to recognise the user’s brainwaves.

The MIT team, working with Boston University neuroscientists, focused on brain signals called error-related potentials, or ErrPs, that the brain generates when it notices a mistake. They were able to detect a characteristic neural pattern from the observer’s brainwaves that was picked up within a 100th of a second by the team’s machine-learning algorithm.

“As you watch the robot, all you have to do is mentally agree or disagree with what it is doing,” explains Professor Rus. “You don’t have to train yourself to think in a certain way. The machine adapts to you and not the other way around.”

The robot, called Baxter, recognised error signals from 12 volunteers who had no training or previous EEG experience. When the human observer saw Baxter moving to put an object into the wrong box, the brain signal came in time for the robot to correct its manoeuvre.

As ErrP signals can be quite faint, the system can also pick up a stronger “secondary error” brain message if the robot has not corrected its mistake.

“Today’s robots aren’t great communicators . . . Think of the potential if they could read our thoughts,” said Prof Rus, who views the development as a coming age of what she calls “pervasive robotics”. The technology could enable passengers in self-driving cars to become effective “back-seat drivers”.

Wolfram Burgard, professor of computer science at Freiburg university, who was not involved in the project, said: “This work brings us closer to developing effective tools for brain-controlled robots and prostheses.

Given how difficult it can be to translate human language into a meaningful signal for robots, work in this area could have a truly profound impact on the future of human-robot collaboration.”

The MIT team’s results will be presented at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation in Singapore in May.