By Rana Gujral
The coronavirus pandemic has forced us to fundamentally rethink our relationship with technology. Remote work, remote learning and ehealth have allowed millions of people to continue their lives while social distancing to reduce the risk of spreading COVID. At the same time, this increased reliance on technology has shown just how much resources like voice technology and AI can influence society.
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We’re now seeing technology like voice AI for emotional recognition being deployed at scale and just how impactful it can be. Carnegie Mellon researchers in Pittsburgh developed an app in 2020 that could detect signs of COVID-19 in someone’s voice by analyzing the voice and breathing patterns of thousands of sick patients. On top of that, doctors increasingly relied on voice technology to take notes and organize documentation during an unprecedented increase in the patient load that stretched our health care system to its limits.
These examples are just a fraction of the potential for the future. Let’s take a closer look at what comes next, both during the pandemic and beyond.
Voice AI during a pandemic
AI is a powerful mediator in the midst of a crisis. Apps like Wysa are leveraging voice AI to support users conversationally, identifying and reducing sources of stress. Still others like BioBase and WoeBot use cognitive behavioral therapy techniques combined with voice recognition AI to walk users through exercises designed to identify and address stress and improve overall mental health.
Before the pandemic, it was estimated that more than 40 million people would experience some form of mental illness every year. The existing mental health crisis ballooned into something more in the last year and isn’t likely to subside anytime soon. In 2020 alone, 40 percent of adults in the U.S. reported symptoms of depression or anxiety, a 400 percent increase from the same period in 2019. Other effects include difficulty sleeping or eating, an increase in alcohol consumption, and worsening of other chronic conditions.
Voice technology plays a vital role in helping identify the subtle clues in someone’s voice that they are in emotional distress. From predicting suicide risks to supplemental care at hospitals and mental health clinics, voice technology is an important resource in addressing this growing concern.
With a shortage of mental health professionals and limited physical access to care, this kind of technology helps free up resources by expediting other tasks like patient record analysis, report creation, and other administrative tasks. It can help remind patients to take key medications. It can also raise a flag and communicate with a doctor automatically if someone’s mood levels start to dip, indicating they are a potential risk to themselves and communicate with a doctor automatically.
Voice technology in the future
The last year has shown us just how important a role voice technology plays in our lives. From freeing up valuable time for our busiest health professionals to supporting remote and hands-free interactions for consumers, there’s a reason voice has boomed. But what comes next?
Aside from the retail and health care applications for voice technology, personal use of voice assistants like Alexa, Google, and Siri has increased with people at home more during the pandemic. This is in part a result of people keeping their hands free of more surfaces, but also just a response to being home more in general.
For example, an engineer in Florida working in speech recognition is developing voice-activated robots for medical use that can reduce physical contact and protect both medical professionals and patients from potential infection of this and future viruses.
Virtual assistants are expected to continue developing as well. They can already control entire homes, including alarm systems, lights, and appliances, and are now being further developed for hands-free utilization of manufacturing units, hospital equipment, and laboratories. The human voice is being mapped to a degree that it will become a viable security key as well, mapped much like your face or your fingerprints as a unique identifier in personal devices and possessions.
Voice technology in 2021 and beyond
Almost one full year into the pandemic, we’re still grappling with major challenges in how we interact with one another, stay safe, and maintain a semblance of normalcy. Voice technology has played an outsized role in helping with these issues and will continue to do so in the future. We will not only continue to see growth in how the technology is used to combat the effects of a major health crisis, but in the comfortable integration into our everyday lives that it offers.
Whether you work in an industry with high degrees of personal interaction or you are starting to leverage the benefits of voice AI in your personal devices, expect the impact of these changes to grow. From improving how we understand one another to accessing resources in a safe and secure way, voice AI will play a major part in your life for years to come.
Rana Gujral is an entrepreneur, speaker, investor and CEO at Behavioral Signals, a Los Angeles-based company that is bridging the communication gap between humans and machines by introducing emotional intelligence, from speech, into conversations with AI.
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