December 4, 2008, Updated September 13, 2012

IBM Israel is collaborating with partners in the European Union to create computer software that will help prevent cognitive decline in the elderly – keeping grandma and grandpa on the ball.

A number of recent studies have found that computer software like Israel’s MindFit can help people stave off mind-robbing diseases like Alzheimer’s into old age. Facing a concern for the world’s aging population — growing older all the time — Israeli computer scientists at the IBM Haifa Research Lab, have developed a new collaboration with European Union partners to prevent cognitive decline in the elderly population. In essence, they are laying the groundwork for high-tech gadgets that will help the elderly improve their quality of life.

Alex Sorin, the lead researcher at the IBM Haifa lab says the team is involved in exploratory research that they may one day take to industry. “Our project aims to support older people suffering from memory decline, loss of details, and prospective memory decline, which reduces their ability to plan their life,” he tells ISRAEL21c.

Gadgets that study and understand the elderly

“The core idea is to provide the elderly user with a virtual and invisible personal assistant, a memory wizard. The mission is that it will always be around and the user records and stores daily experiences on it, and it will remind on the month the things [the users need to do],” says Sorin. The challenge, the speech processing expert points out — is to have the gadgetry working in a non-intrusive way. “The interface is part of the exploratory research,” he notes.

Closely collaborating with IBM labs in America and all over the world, the Israel team was selected for its pioneering research and development of speech recognition technologies. The collaboration with European Union partners is expected to give rise to a number of new gadgets that will “understand” the needs of society’s older generation. Besides contributing to mental fitness, the Israel team of 10, headed by three speech recognition experts, expects to be able to develop a system that can help the aged function better in society.

Called the HERMES Cognitive Care for Active Aging project, developers hope the research, over the course of three years, will give rise to home-based and mobile solutions that solve some of the “natural” problems of the elderly, as they age. A special interface based on intelligent audio and visual cues for people who normally don’t interact with high-tech devices, may be built and will be programmed to include a number of “smart” functions.

Three services to enhance life quality

When complete, HERMES developers plan on offering three main services to help the elderly with their day-to-day life. One service will help them remember what happened in the morning, or at the doctor’s office the day before (the recent past). Granny can ask HERMES: “What did my daughter say to me yesterday when we discussed the snow storm in New York?” Based on recordings and keyword content, HERMES can replay exactly what Granny’s daughter said to her.

A second component of the system intends to give reminders and notices about a person’s daily schedule. If Gramps notices the coffee is almost finished, he can tell the system to remind him to buy more. When he walks past the store, his mobile device picks up the location reminding him then and there to buy coffee, and anything else that was added to the list earlier. Voice prompts, say developers, will be natural and pleasant.

A third and final service will work to maintain a healthy mind. It will give a user quizzes based on facts about his or her life, asking the person to reorganize events as they should appear, or into categories. Or perhaps HERMES will give Grandma and Grandpa a pop-quiz on their grandchildren’s birthdays, so they can remember the most important details of their lives, for as long as possible.

Aligning experts in gerontology to speech processing, with those involved in hardware integration and user-centered design, the first prototype of HERMES is expected to be launched in Austria, and Spain. And if successful will be deployed to countries around the world, including America.

Interacts with real experiences and emotions

Partners in the HERMES project include Israelis at the IBM Research Lab in Haifa, Athens Information Technology in Greece, Bradford University in the UK, and TXT e-Solutions in Italy. The Israelis are contributing key components in speech transcription, speaker recognition, voice-based emotion detection, and text-to-speech synthesis.

Collaborators plan on deploying the technology in the homes’ of various elderly people, in order to record and monitor their needs and mode of communicating these needs to the outside world. Exact locations and addresses will be recorded, as well as sensitive numbers for banks, or essential names and contacts, to help prompt someone’s memory, should it lapse in any area.

“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 IBM lab in Israel. “The project will enable us to target more complex dynamic environments that demand new innovative approaches. These new approaches can work equally well for business environments, to help analyze telephone calls in a call center, broadcast news and video, or any scenario where speech is of essence.”

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

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