Amazon’s Alexa is available on a lot of devices, from lamps to alarm clocks to fridges. But robotics company Bionik Laboratories says it’s the first to add the digital assistant to a powered exoskeleton. The company has integrated Alexa with its lower-body Arke exoskeleton, allowing users to give voice commands like “Alexa, I’m ready to stand” or “Alexa, take a step.”
Movement of the Arke, which is currently in clinical development, is usually controlled by an app on a tablet or by reacting automatically to users’ movements. Sensors in the exoskeleton detect when the wearer shifts their weight, activating the motors in the backpack that help the individual move. For Bionik, adding Alexa can help individuals going through rehabilitation get familiar with these actions.
“It would mostly be used in the training period while people are getting used to these devices,” Michal Prywata, co-founder and COO of Bionik, told The Verge. “Using information coming out of our sensors, we can tell when people want to stand up, when they want to sit down, take a left step, or take a right step. But when patients are first learning to use the device, depending on their level of injury, they can struggle with these movements. So [integrating Alexa] gives a person the ability to control things with their voice.”
Right now, this integration comes with a number of caveats. Firstly, there are no microphones built into the Arke itself, so users would have to be within earshot of an Echo device or be able to access the Alexa app on a mobile device. Secondly, this is only a prototype. The exoskeleton itself isn’t yet cleared for clinical use — and it’s unclear if Alexa will stand up to the rigors of medical certification.
“In test settings it works and is functional, but there’s a lot of liability involved in healthcare; a lot of standards you have to meet,” says Prywata. “Alexa is designed for use in consumer applications. It’s a completely different risk profile compared to medical use. You have to make sure everything is perfect [as you’re dealing with peoples’ lives.”
If you think it’s annoying when your Amazon Echo mishears what song you want to play, imagine the potential damage that could be caused if an exoskeleton interprets a voice command incorrectly. Todd Carpenter, a cybersecurity expert who works with medical devices and systems, says that this sort of integration has a number of potential fault-points, including the internet connection needed to use Alexa (which could leak data or disconnect) and the possibility of mishearing commands.
“How does performance change when the user is under stress, e.g., has a cold?” Carpenter tells The Verge over email. “How does performance change when the environment is noisy, e.g., when a fire alarm is going off?” He adds, though, that a “rock-solid implementation” of the technology could be very useful and “more effective than other means of command for a variety of users.”
Bionik Laboratories is confident about the future use of technology like Alexa in health care and home rehabilitation. Prywata says it’s just one more tool that can be used to help people with mobility impairments be more independent, and able to look after themselves in their own homes. Doing so, he says, is more humane, more convenient, and more cost-effective. “I think this technology will become more widely used as people become more and more tech-savvy,” says Prywata. “Things just becomes easier if you can control the world around you with your voice.”