Smart speakers detect signs of cardiac arrest

Smart speakers such as Amazon Alexa could soon alert emergency services to individuals experiencing cardiac arrest, which results in around 500,000 US deaths per year.

cardiac arrest
Researchers at the University of Washington have developed an algorithm for a smart speaker or smartphone lets the device detect the sound of agonal breathing and call for help (Image: Sarah McQuate/University of Washington)

People experiencing cardiac arrest will either stop breathing or gasp for air, a sign called agonal breathing. Immediate CPR increases someone’s chance of survival but research suggests that one of the most common locations for an out-of-hospital cardiac arrest is in a patient’s bedroom, where no one is likely around or awake to respond.

Now, researchers at the University of Washington (UW) have developed an algorithm to monitor people for cardiac arrest while they’re asleep. Through smart speakers and smartphones, the new tool detects agonal breathing and calls for help. According to UW, the proof-of-concept tool, which was developed using real agonal breathing instances captured from 911 calls, detected agonal breathing events 97 per cent of the time from up to 20 feet (or 6m) away. The findings are published in 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 co-corresponding author Shyam Gollakota, an associate professor in the UW’s Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering. “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.”

Agonal breathing is said to be present for about 50 per cent of people who experience cardiac arrests, according to 911 call data, and patients who take agonal breaths often have a better chance of surviving.

“This kind of breathing happens when a patient experiences really low oxygen levels,” said co-corresponding author Dr Jacob Sunshine, an assistant professor of anaesthesiology and pain medicine at the UW School of Medicine. “It’s sort of a guttural gasping noise, and its uniqueness makes it a good audio biomarker to use to identify if someone is experiencing a cardiac arrest.”

The researchers plan to commercialise this technology through UW spinout Sound Life Sciences, Inc.