Health Scan: We may soon have computer-assisted memories

A combination of home-based and mobile device-based solutions is planned to help older people combat the natural reduction in cognitive capabilities.

brain scan 88 (photo credit: )
brain scan 88
(photo credit: )
The use of computers to keep aging brains alert is a new project at IBM-Israel, which has announced a collaboration with European Union partners. The three-year HERMES Cognitive Care for Active Aging project will be based on audio and visual processing and reasoning. A combination of home-based and mobile device-based solutions is planned to help older people combat the natural reduction in cognitive capabilities; special focus will be put on developing a comfortable interface for older people with little or no computer experience. As people approach middle age, their cognitive abilities begin to decline, and forgetfulness permeates almost every aspect of daily life. "HERMES is helping realize the vision of lengthening the stage of independent living and helping aging populations remain active," explained Prof. Manfred Tscheligi, Director of the Center for Usability Research & Engineering (CURE) and coordinator of the HERMES project. "Developing innovative yet non-intimidating technology to address the needs of this valuable population is a challenge that this community of researchers is eager to embrace." The project brings together experts ranging from gerontology, speech processing, hardware integration and user-centered design. The first stage is a joint effort of partners in Austria and Spain, who will work on better understanding the memory needs of the elderly through a range of user-centered methods. The technology partners include the IBM Research Lab in Haifa, Athens Information Technology (Greece), Bradford University (UK) and TXT e-Solutions (Italy), which will develop the sensory and perceptual technologies. The Israeli facility's contribution will be advances in speech-to-text transcription, speaker recognition, voice-based emotion detection and text-to-speech synthesis. The HERMES "home of the future" prototype will be equipped with microphones and video cameras to record conversations and experiences at the user's will. The elderly will be equipped with a mobile device that records conversations, experiences, location coordinates, dates and times outside the home (such as the doctor's office and the bank). All the information will be stored, processed and analyzed to help augment the person's memory. "With HERMES, our research into multimedia technologies is taking a real leap forward in transforming how people will go about their daily lives," says Ron Hoory, manager of speech technologies at the Haifa lab. "The project will enable us to target more complex dynamic environments that demand new approaches. These new approaches can work equally well for business environments, or any scenario where speech is of essence." Eventually, the research will help elderly users remember what happened in the recent past. For example, Rivka can ask the system: "What did my daughter say to me yesterday about coming to visit?" The system will search its repository of recordings based on the time window and the keywords, and then let the user play back the relevant conversations in audio or video. The second service will give the person reminders or prompts to help manage their daily schedule. For example, if Avraham notices that the jar of coffee is almost finished, he can tell the system to reminder him to buy coffee. The system will make a connection between the word "coffee," the word "buy" and the local store where George usually shops. When his mobile device notices that Avraham is passing the store, the system will use a human voice to remind him to buy it. The third contemplated service will be memory fitness exercises based on personal experiences. For example, at any given time, the system will have a list of appointments, some from the past and others that are yet to take place. The system can present the appointments and ask the user to organize them by category, or quiz the user by asking the exact time for next week's doctor's appointment. Another question might be: From the following three appointments which is first, second, and third? These games help jog the user's memorys. SURPRISE GIFTS FOR YAD SARAH The baggage handlers of an El Al flight from Newark to Ben-Gurion Airport were amazed recently when dozens of perfectly healthy looking passengers showed up carrying or pushing medical equipment - crutches, wheelchairs, special cushions, and a wide variety of assistive devices. It turns out that they were representatives of the Jewish Federation of Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania, who came to attend the General Assembly of American Jewish federations in Jerusalem. The equipment was a donation to Yad Sarah. "We are familiar with the activities of the Yad Sarah volunteers, and are always looking for ways to help them," said Lehigh Valley federation director Mark Goldstein. "In the past, we've campaigned for money donations, but this time we wanted to do something out of the ordinary. We put out the word to donate medical equipment not currently in use - and to our amazement were able to collect dozens of items. We know many people use Yad Sarah's equipment, and instead of having these items sit in someone's garage or be discarded we collected them." All the equipment was sent to Yad Sarah's maintenance crew for inspection, cataloguing and lending.