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Your smart speaker could soon detect a heart attack and call an ambulance, study finds

That smart speaker you use to play music, check the weather or set alarms could soon save your life.

University of Washington researchers have developed smart speaker technology to recognize when people are having a heart attack and call 911, according to a study published Tuesday in the Nature journal npj Digital Medicine.

“A lot of people have smart speakers in their homes, and these devices have amazing capabilities that we can take advantage of,” said Shyam Gollakota, a professor at the university who worked on the project.

Nearly half a million people die from heart attacks each year, and research indicates there’s a strong chance people are in their bedrooms when it happens, according to the university. That’s why researchers decided to develop the tool for smart speakers such as Amazon Alexa or Google Home.

The technology works by detecting agonal breathing -- the gasping for air that occurs when a person goes into cardiac arrest. About half of people who have heart attacks experience agonal breathing, researchers said.

The researchers used sounds of agonal breathing from actual 911 calls to Seattle dispatchers and loaded the clips into a dataset. To ensure the technology didn’t pick up on a false reading, the researchers used more than 7,000 sound samples of noises that people make in their sleep, including snoring and obstructive sleep apnea.

“We don’t want to alert either emergency services or loved ones unnecessarily, so it’s important that we reduce our false positive rate,” said Justin Chan, a doctoral student at the University of Washington in Seattle.

The result was a tool that detected agonal breathing 97 percent of the time from nearly 20 feet away, researchers said.

The team hopes that someday the tool will function like an app constantly listening for agonal breathing, and when there are signs of trouble, it will alert bystanders to perform CPR or call 911 if there’s no response.

“Cardiac arrests are a very common way for people to die, and right now many of them can go unwitnessed,” said Jacob Sunshine, a professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine. “Part of what makes this technology so compelling is that it could help us catch more patients in time for them to be treated.”

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Chacour Koop is a Real-Time reporter based in Kansas City. Previously, he reported for the Associated Press, Galveston County Daily News and Daily Herald in Chicago.
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