• Kyodo


Smart speakers with artificial intelligence technology are increasingly being employed to help older people or those with disabilities in their daily lives, with their voice-activated functionalities proving especially convenient for those with mobility issues or wanting to connect.

“Good morning, Alexa.” The daily routine of Katsunori Endo, a 63-year-old resident of Yamagata Prefecture, includes greeting his AI speaker and asking for the day’s weather and news.

“It’s convenient because it tells me the weather for specific regions,” Endo said, adding that it will also tell him what happened on a particular day in history, or alert him to seasonal dates.

Developed by e-commerce giant Amazon.com Inc., Alexa is a smart speaker capable of performing a plethora of tasks in response to voice commands, including providing real-time information and controlling several other smart devices as a home automation system.

Smart speakers with added videophone functionality were distributed to around 20 older people last October by Kirari Yoshijima Network, a nonprofit organization in Kawanishi, Yamagata Prefecture, which supports and provides opportunities for local residents to socialize.

The organization expects that the virtual assistants will be able to help prevent dementia developing in those who live alone and have limited interaction and conversations with others.

The videophone, which can be used by family members who are at distant locations to check on the well-being of their elderly relatives, also enables the user to connect with friends they are unable to meet in person due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s helpful when evacuation information is broadcast through the speaker during times of disaster. I want to use it to reach out to others in the neighborhood as well,” said 73-year-old farmer Yuko Yamada.

“I would be happy if the doctor could examine me through the screen” when the house is snowed in during winter, he added.

The organization’s secretary general, Yoshikazu Takahashi, 60, believes that enabling remote medical guidance will reduce the workload of nurses, and help them notice any unusual changes in a patient quicker.

In the future, he hopes to make it possible for users to also request car transport and order food through the AI speaker.

But while these smart speakers may be a lifesaver for those with physical disabilities or visual impairments, their practicality for those who have difficulty speaking is questionable.

Kiyotake Seiryu Shien school in Miyazaki Prefecture tried to address this challenge last year when it carried out an experiment with an 18-year-old student who had both mobility issues and difficulties speaking. The student was asked to type her commands and use a text-to-speech tool to convey them to the AI speaker.

“In the future, we want it to be a tool that can do things for the user when they are living alone, such as opening the curtains,” said a teacher at the school.

Takashi Watanabe, a professor of welfare technology at Nihon Fukushi University, Aichi Prefecture, said there are now many older people who are alone at home and unable to meet others due to the coronavirus.

“(AI speakers) are convenient as a means to maintain contact with society, and useful for those who are living independently but don’t have a helper,” he said.

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