Amazon Alexa Can Help People With Autism Do More On Their Own

Apr 17, 2017

Amazon's Echo connected speaker—and Alexa, the device's voice controlled brains that let users order pizzas and Ubers—is a hit. But the technology underlying Alexa can do more important things like helping people with special needs do more things on their own.

Witness this recent blog post from Amazon that explores how Troy Larson, a senior architect for Amazon (amzn) Web Services, used two software tools for third-party developers to program a virtual assistant that cues his autistic son reminders about needing to eat or using the restroom.

The first tool, "Lex," lets programmers build speech recognition into their own software. The second tool, "Polly," converts text to speech.

Developers can use them to build their own voice commands and interactions into software. The developers provide the audio or text so it can be incorporated into commands or spoken words that the virtual assistant can deliver

Larson used an inexpensive Raspberry Pi, a bare-bones computer that can be adapted to many purposes, to deliver custom messages to his son, who may forget certain basics unless prompted. For example, the Pi-based digital assistant can remind him to take his medication at certain times or to to go get a drink.

From Amazon's blog post:

Pollexy (“Polly” + “Lex”) is a Raspberry Pi and mobile-based special needs verbal assistant that lets caretakers schedule audio task prompts and messages both on a recurring schedule and/or on-demand. Caretakers can schedule regular medicine reminder messages or hourly bathroom break messages, for example, and at the same time use their Amazon Echo and mobile device to request a specific message be played immediately.

To be fair, some outside of Amazon saw Alexa's potential to help autistic people long ago.

Last year, in a blog for families affected by autism, one parent, writing under the name AHO Admin, described how he used Amazon Alexa's timer functions, typically used to time cooking or other tasks, to tell his son when a given activity should start and stop.

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Alexa helped in other ways too. Because Alexa needs voice commands to be pronounced clearly to be understood, this boy learned to stop slurring his words to get Alexa to do what he wanted. That's a helpful skill in any situation.

According to Amazon's blog post: "He’s learned how to turn lights on and off, and start and stop music that he likes by talking with Alexa. He’s also learned (somewhat unfortunately) how to change the volume as well."

Lisa Yang, the co-founder of MIT's new Hock E. Tan and K. Lisa Yang Center for Autism Research, said Alexa and similar technologies like Microsoft (msft) Cortana or Google (googl) Assistant could help many people on the autism spectrum who tend to be compliant because they've had to interact with therapists for most of their lives. But there's an important caveat, in her view.

Larson's son, who is 16, is old enough to have learned personal grooming skills like tooth brushing already. But, for younger autistic people, parents and clinicians must first make sure the children have those skills ingrained in them before handing off prompts to technology, Yang said via email.

This personal care training must be reinforced constantly "hand over hand if necessary," Yang wrote. People should not use technology to "bypass that process," she said.

Yang was just back from the second annual Autism @ Work Summit which took place in Palo Alto, Calif. last week. The event, co-sponsored by SAP (sap) Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard Enterprise (hpe), and Ernst & Young, aims to come up with more inclusive hiring practices to build opportunities for those on the autism spectrum.

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