Almost 500,000 Americans die each year from cardiac arrest, but now an unlikely new tool may help cut that number. Researchers at the University of Washington have figured out how to turn a smart speaker into a cardiac monitoring system. That’s right, in the not-too-distant future you may be able to ask Siri if you’re having a heart attack—even if you’re not touching the device.
Because smart speakers are always passively listening, anticipating being called into action with a “Hey Google” or “Alexa!” they are the perfect device for listening for changes in breathing. So if someone starts gasping and making so-called “agonal breathing” (add that to your Scrabble repertoire) the smart speaker can call for help. Agonal breathing is described by co-author Dr. Jacob Sunshine as “a sort of a guttural gasping noise” that is so unique to cardiac arrest that it makes “a good audio biomarker.” According to a press release, about 50% of people who experience cardiac arrest have agonal breathing and since Alexa and Google are always listening, they can be taught to monitor for its distinctive sound.
On average, the proof-of-concept tool detected agonal breathing events 97% of the time from up to 20 feet (or 6 meters) away. The findings were published today in npj Digital Medicine. Why is it so good at detecting agonal breathing? Because the team created it using a dataset of agonal breathing captured from real 911 calls.
“A lot of people have smart speakers in their homes, and these devices have amazing capabilities that we can take advantage of,” said co-author Shyam Gollakota. “We envision a contactless system that works by continuously and passively monitoring the bedroom for an agonal breathing event, and alerts anyone nearby to come provide CPR. And then if there’s no response, the device can automatically call 911.”