The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Smart speakers can detect abnormal heart rhythms, researchers find

Computer and health scientists are exploring the possibilities of the new health-tracking skill

Researchers say Amazon's Alexa could be used to detect abnormal heart rhythms. (Jonathan Baran/The Washington Post)

“Alexa, how’s my health?”

Researchers at the University of Washington say they have developed a contactless way to screen for irregular heartbeats using ordinary smart speakers.

The analysts came up with an AI-powered system that relies on sonar technology to pick up vibrations caused by nearby chest wall movements. If ever deployed, the heart-tracking technology could enhance how doctors conduct telemedicine appointments by providing data that would otherwise require wearables, health hardware or an in-person checkup.

The goal was to find a way to use devices that people already have to edge cardiology and health monitoring into the future, according to Arun Sridhar, assistant professor of cardiology at the UW School of Medicine. The team published their findings Tuesday.

“We have Google and Alexa in our homes all around us. We predominantly use them to wake us up in the morning or play music,” said Shyam Gollakota, a UW computer science professor and co-author of the report. “The question we’ve been asking is, can we use the smart speaker for something more useful.” Smart speaker makers could integrate the technology into existing products via software updates, researchers say.

AI-powered bionic hand promises lifelike dexterity

The system works by emitting audio signals into the room at a volume humans can’t hear. As the pulses bounce back to the speaker, an algorithm works to identify beating patterns generated from a human’s chest wall. A second algorithm is then applied to determine the amount of time between two heartbeats.

That information, known as inter-beat intervals, could help doctors gauge how well your heart is functioning. Researchers trained the speakers to pick up regular and irregular heart rhythms.

The concept of remotely tracking patients’ health isn’t new. Wearable devices such as smartwatches have increasingly added wellness tools for years. But contactless health monitoring is somewhat of a frontier that could prove valuable when you aren’t wearing a device or if you aren’t experiencing any triggering symptoms of a medical emergency.

The smart speaker research project started in 2019 but was held up because of the pandemic. The analysts picked things back up late last year, testing out the software with 26 healthy participants and 24 hospitalized patients with varying cardiac conditions, including atrial fibrillation and heart failure.

Healthy patients were tested in office rooms, while cardiac patients were tested in their hospital rooms at the UW Medical Center in Seattle.

The specialists then compared the smart speaker findings to results from medical-grade ECG monitors. The smart speakers’ readings turned out to be relatively accurate, only deviating from the ECG readings by an amount that “wasn’t medically relevant,” the researchers say.

The system is set up for spot checks. If you wanted a reading, you’d have to sit within two feet of the speaker for it to work.

The researchers used a developer version of Alexa with a low-quality speaker to run their tests. And they say speakers in mainstream devices could be more powerful, enabling readings from farther away.

The scientists behind the technology imagine a future in which people could opt in to heart rhythm tracking on their smart speakers. And if you sleep near your device or have it near you during telemedicine appointments, there might be benefits. For instance, you could share your heart rate with your physician during a remote checkup. Or the device could alert medical professionals if you experience a cardiac emergency.

The next step is to figure out whether the AI can be used to detect sleep apnea signs.

One-fourth of U.S. households already have smart speakers. But getting the software approved for the devices could take a few years, Gollakota said.

The researchers previously created an AI system for smart speakers to detect cardiac arrest. They’ve also developed smart speaker technology to monitor babies’ breathing. Those algorithms are undergoing FDA approval.