A virtual assistant to help people with Alzheimer’s disease

Computer scientists have built a virtual assistant specifically for people with Alzheimer’s disease.

The prototype is a part of a research project to develop home-based technology that combines artificial intelligence with social psychological models. Known as ACT@Home, the emotionally intelligent assistant cues people to complete daily tasks, such as taking medication or proper hand-washing while, that works by recognizing facial expression, posture, tone of voice and other emotional cues.

“Convincing a person with Alzheimer’s disease to do something is very difficult because it depends on the person’s interpretation of the situation, what they think is going on, what cues they are getting and who they think they are in that moment,” says Jesse Hoey, lead researcher and professor at the David R. Cheriton School of Computer Science at the University of Waterloo in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. “This prototype will work by building a model of what’s going on emotionally in the mind of someone with the cognitive difficulty and then prompting them to complete an activity of daily living in a way that makes sense to them in that moment.”

Researchers are concerned specifically with intervening in the process as people with Alzheimer’s disease may start a task, forget what they’re doing or why, lose motivation, forget their progress, repeat steps or abandon before completion. In a demo video, the virtual assistant welcomes a woman who has stepped in front of the sink only if they appear confused. The assistant then guides the woman to wash her hands, one step at a time: turn on the water, use the soap, rinse hands, turn off water and dry hands. The last prompt sounds more like a social calling by asking, “Can you come back soon?” 

Hoey says the technology potentially also help people with Down Syndrome, other types of dementia and traumatic brain injury. He hopes it will be available within the next four years.

“Our ultimate goal is to help people maintain some independence while lessening the burden on their caregivers, Hoey says in a press release. “The person they live with usually has to step in to help, but we are hearing that the amount of assistance and patience required can become overwhelming.”

Topics: Alzheimer's/Dementia , Technology & IT