Researchers Prove Smart Speakers Can Hear Your Heart Beat and Judge Its Health
Smart speakers can be used to check your heart rate at a distance as accurately as an electrocardiogram and without any additional tech, according to a new paper from researchers at the University of Washington. The Amazon Echo and Google Nest line of smart speakers have all the audio technology they need to do so already, opening up a whole new potential healthcare angle for the smart speakers that could be a boon both to hospitals and for home care.
The researchers wanted to essentially tune a smart speaker from listening for speech to listening for heartbeats. They would then apply a machine-learning algorithm to that audio to analyze the rate and regularity. But, because a heart doesn’t make much noise in the standard human-audible range, the system had to work more like short-range sonar, sending out inaudible noises to someone sitting within a couple of feet and listening to the reflected sound. The researchers didn’t use an actual commercial smart speaker for the test, because the microphone data is not something third-party developers can see due to privacy protections. Instead, they set up seven microphones with the same sensitivity of an Echo Dot in the same configuration they would be in when installed in the smart speaker. This facsimile smart speaker ended up looking like the one seen on the right.
“Using the fact that smart speakers have multiple microphones, we designed a new beam-forming algorithm to help the speakers find heartbeats,” lead author Anran Wang said in a statement. “With this method, we are not getting the electric signal of the heart contracting. Instead, we’re seeing the vibrations on the skin when the heart beats.”
The researchers tested both healthy people and those previously diagnosed with irregular or unhealthy heartrates. The device could detect and determine the participant’s heart rate within a few dozen milliseconds of what the standard electrocardiogram reported. That means it should be as easy for an Echo or Nest to tell you your heart rate just by standing near it, even if you don’t have a fitness band or similarly equipped smartwatch on your wrist.
Applying artificial intelligence to audio as a health test is starting to spread. A study published last year used AI to analyze clips of people speaking and checked for vocal biomarkers that could identify those at a high risk of heart failure. The goal is to create a vocal test for any number of heart problems. Vocal biomarkers are also how Vocalis Health designed a voice test for COVID-19 that accurately determines infection 81.2% of the time. Smart speakers and voice assistants, meanwhile, are becoming a common element of healthcare. Most recently, Google Assistant updated its features with a new section on wellness, while Amazon just started allowing Alexa to share information from the Amazon Halo fitness band. The authors envision applying the technology they created to augment the current healthcare system by checking the vitals of patients who can’t use contact-based tests, or for when doctors can’t be with patients due to distance or potential infection.
“If you have a device like this, you can monitor a patient on an extended basis and define patterns that are individualized for the patient. For example, we can figure out when arrhythmias are happening for each specific patient and then develop corresponding care plans that are tailored for when the patients actually need them,” co-author Dr. Arun Sridhar said. “This is the future of cardiology. And the beauty of using these kinds of devices is that they are already in people’s homes.”