Hey, Alexa! Call an ambulance, I think I’m having a heart attack.
The smart devices that are rapidly moving into American homes may one day be able to do more than just tell you the day’s weather or the lineup of the 1927 New York Yankees. Alexa, Siri and the gang could save your life.
Researchers at the University of Washington wanted to know if the devices could detect whether someone is having a heart attack by correctly identifying sounds such as irregular breathing or gasping.
Using actual recordings from 911 systems of people who called for help while having a heart attack, the team was able to create a program to detect specific sounds that arise when a person is severely deprived of oxygen.
They tested the devices in a bedroom because that’s where the majority of heart attacks occur in the home. Over more than 80 hours of testing, using other sounds including snoring and shallow-breathing sleep apnea events, they fine-tuned the devices to achieve a false-positive rate of less than 1%.
But only around half of heart attack patients have irregular breathing as a symptom, so the devices might not help in all cardiac cases.
Another challenge was that the devices require an intentional activation from the user — the familiar “Hey, Alexa,” for instance. That’s not going to happen with a person who is in extreme distress or possibly unconscious.
While using these devices to call for help may seem far-fetched, it’s important to appreciate the reasons behind the research. More than 350,000 out-of-hospital cardiac arrests occur in the U.S. each year. Given the potential to save some lives, using a smart device in this way may not seem dumb after all.