Amazon Echos trialled in support living schemes
Whether asking it’s best joke, deploying it in a talking fish (google it) or simply asking it inane questions, smart assistants arguably have brought a lot of fun into our lives, but perhaps not enough of the focus has been on how he technology could enrich the lives of the needy.
Yet this could be about to change as one Wales-based charity hope to lead the way in investigating how smart assistants such as Amazon Alexa can help people with learning disabilities live more independently.
The six-month £15,000 trial will see learning disabilities charity Innovate Trust will test how devices including the Amazon Echo and Google Home can be used to reduce the need for staff to visit people’s home 24/7 with five participants across two schemes.
The charity hopes to learn how it can improve the services they provide (e.g. by providing reminders to take medication, attend appointments or carry out household tasks) and ultimately save the care sector money.
One participant told the BBC that she uses the technology set reminders to go food shopping and cook, know when care staff are due to arrive and to control sensory lights in her house, as well as communicate with friends and easily access her calendar.
"It's increasing their independence and confidence, emotionally it's making them feel as if they're in control of their own care package and own lives, they're not so dependent on staff, and it's teaching them new skills," commented Ron Woods, director of policy development and procurement for Innovate Trust, who has high hopes for the project.
He added: "It's also to make the model of supported living more sustainable. It's well known in the care sector we could expand the use of technology."
The charity currently offers a supported living service to 275 people across three local areas through 94 supported living schemes. The trust says it believes 10 schemes using voice assistant technology could make initial savings of just under £250,000 and potentially millions “in the long-term” if some elements of gesture control could be incorporated for those less able.
The funds for the project have come from Innovate to Save, a Cardiff University and Nesta foundation partnership, which backed eight Welsh organisations dedicated to bringing innovation to public services.
The charity will assess the success of each project at the end of the six-month trial. If successful, Innovate Trust says it will apply for a loan to expand the project.