The smart personal assistant revolution is moving forward at a breakneck pace. It took approximately 30 years for the cellular telephone to begin outnumbering people on the planet, but smart personal assistants are projected to outnumber humans in half of that amount of time by 2021. The technology-research firm Canalys expects 100 million smart speakers (smart personal assistants) will be installed worldwide by the beginning of 2020 and also estimates the number of smart assistant compatible devices will reach 1.6 billion in the US that same year. The numbers are staggering.
It is precisely because of these numbers that manufacturers of smart personal assistants like Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and Apple are pushing sales of their devices. Not only does a smart personal assistant allow for corporate monetization post-purchase from user data collection it is on the forefront of taking over your everyday space whether that be your home, car, or office. The corporation that garners the biggest market share with their smart assistant technology will lock in app developers, appliance manufacturers, and consumers into their company’s proprietary platform also called the ecosystem which ensures frictionless interoperability. Home automation and lighting is forecast to make up 49 percent of the market segment, followed by home security and surveillance (18 percent), audio and video entertainment (13 percent) and “other” appliance segment (20 percent).
The smart assistant with its voice technology is a significant boon to US seniors as more baby boomers are opting to age in place and smart voice technology simplifies remaining at home. There are the obvious uses for a smart assistant like calendaring events, medication reminders, home environmental controls, age-appropriate learning activities, and much more. Some of the newer applications of voice technology are pushing smart personal assistants into newer realms like digital therapist, companion, and caregiver. For the senior who is living at home and alone, these are wonderful new developments.
Research in the field of prosody, the patterns of stress and intonation in a language, are making smart assistants capable of detecting depression, loneliness, anxiety, joy, and anger to name a few. Initial research of emotion enabled artificial intelligence focused on emotion detection through facial expressions but quickly turned to the spoken word. Vocal signatures carry an incredible array of information from how you string the words in a sentence together, to tone, depth, rhythm, pitch, resonance, pronunciation, tempo, and more. These vocal features are then analyzed to suggest a person’s mood and subsequent best action practice for the senior.
The practical applications of this technology are numerous. A medical doctor with a smart personal assistant in their office can more readily pick up on identifiers that suggest patient depression. A smart car speaker in a semi-autonomous car can make informed judgments about the safety of handing over the controls to the driver based on vocal characteristics indicating stress or confusion. A smart personal assistant might pick up on loneliness in a stay at home senior and offer suggestions of music or other activities to engage the senior and lift their spirits. The smart personal assistant is also “someone” an elderly person can tell their troubles to without shame, recrimination or judgment. The smart assistant is programmed so that it never gets tired, never becomes distracted or bored with the content of “its person." It is a bit like a therapist allowing the senior to get out all of their frustrations about growing old and losing their physical and cognitive abilities; even expressing fears for their future.
While smart personal assistant technology is currently not able to provide all of the benefits of a professionally trained human caregiver, therapist, or companion it is readily available, overall inexpensive, and can help alleviate the problems of too many seniors with too few attainable human caregivers to meet their needs. The technology may also outpace its human counterpart in the not too distant future if current research and development is any indication of success. The market forces for profit will continue to drive the expansion of the smart personal assistant and its associated products allowing for newer market segments and more importantly the ability for stay at home seniors to live their best quality of life.
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