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Robot to help understand people with speech problems, Alzheimers

Dr. Frank Rudzicz got hooked on robots and artificial intelligence at the age of five while visiting his dad at General Electric, where he worked as an electrical engineer.

“He’d bring me in on weekends for a father-son thing and we’d tinker with robots,” Rudzicz recalls. “The robots were basically massive arms with grippers. It was awesome.”

zenoToday, Rudzicz is a researcher at the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute with an expertise in using artificial intelligence to understand speech problems. His goal is to use this expertise to program robots that can assess and help treat speech problems unique to those with Alzheimer’s disease and other neurological illnesses.

As Rudzicz explains, the memory lapses synonymous with Alzheimer’s means people can lose their way in a conversation. And at least half of those with the disease have an additional disability called aphasia that decreases language comprehension, vocabulary and speech fluency. It may affect a single aspect of language, such as the ability to remember the names of objects, or how to put words together into sentences, or how to read. But it’s more common to have multiple problems.

Aphasia is diagnosed using a wide array of language cues. For example, the almost exclusive use of generic words — car rather than sedan. Or a significantly slower rate of speech.

Rudzicz has designed voice-based software to “converse” with a person and assess their speech for this language disability and for language problems associated with memory loss. Pilot tests show it gives accurate and early diagnoses.

“People have been using the same basic memory tests for diagnosis for a long time,” says Rudzicz. “These tests tend to be more useful after the disease has progressed.”

Changes in the brain resulting in dementia begin up to 25 years before most symptoms appear. Rudzicz thinks his software could help catch those changes early so people can get treatment at this stage.

There is also good evidence his software measures the disease’s progress when people speak with it on a regular basis.

Rudzicz would eventually like to see speech therapists use his software to assess the sometimes fast-changing communication abilities of people with Alzheimer’s, and to devise appropriate treatments.

But his ultimate aim is to teach the software to learn communication strategies human caregivers use so people with Alzheimer’s can have real conversations with it.

“Caregivers tend to ask more closed-ended, yes/no questions such as, “Do you mean X?,'” says Rudzicz.

His software can be played on a computer, tablet or in a robot designed to interact with people. Some Toronto-area long-term care homes are now considering a test of his software in a robot that could “talk” to residents and keep them engaged.
With funding from the Alzheimer Society Research Program, Rudzicz has launched a three-year study to perfect the software and the way it is delivered.

-Report by the Alzheimer Society of Ontario. Click here to Donate to Quality of Life Research


SEPT. 18 – As part of Coffee Break, the Alzheimer Societies of Belleville-Hastings-
Quinte and Prince Edward County will be selling Krispy Kreme donuts to raise funds for local programs and services that help people living with dementia, and their families. Krispy Kreme Selling Sites: BELLEVILLE – Alzheimer Society Office (Bay View Mall), Bridge St. Church, Canadian Tire, Empire Theatre, Farmer’s Market TRENTON – Bulk Barn, Wal-Mart; STIRLING – Foodland; TWEED – Valu-Mart MARMORA -Valu-Mart; PICTON – Alzheimer Society Office (90 King St.), County Road Farms, Giant Tiger, Home Hardware, Metro; ROSSMORE – Gilmour’s Meat Shop & Deli; WELLINGTON – Pierson’s Foodland

SEPT 20 – The Alzheimer Society of Prince Edward County, in conjunction with Belleville – Hastings-Quinte is presenting a forum of learning and sharing for people with early-stage dementia and their partners in care.

The day will feature a guest speaker who was diagnosed with dementia at the age of 52, a session on intimacy, some humour, a bit of exercise and speakers from community.

The panel discussion in the afternoon is made up of those who are experiencing memory loss, and their caregivers.

Service providers from the community will also be in attendance to explain the various forms of assistance that are available.
This is all happening on September 20, 2014, at the Royal Canadian Legion banquet hall in Picton. The day starts at 9:30 a.m. with registration and a continental breakfast. The session begin at 10 a.m., lunch, the afternoon session, and closing at 3 p.m. A registration fee of $25 covers the day.

For information or to register call (613) 476-2085 or Fax (613) 476-1537.

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