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Our Champions

September Science Corner

Google + AI + ALS TDI = Working to Better Understand ALS

Fernando Vieira, M.D.

A few months ago, I shared an update about our innovative partnership with Google in this Science Corner. Augie’s Quest support for this particularly exciting work is also sparking a lot of interest in this unique effort, and I thought I’d share a bit more insight into the genesis of this study and collaboration. The below is excerpted from PeriodicALS, a monthly newsletter developed by ALS TDI:

As ALS progresses, loss of muscle function eventually takes away a person’s ability to walk, write, speak, swallow, and breathe, thus shortening their life span. People with ALS also develop dysarthria, or impaired speech, which makes it harder to speak, using their own voices and be readily understood. Some refer to this change in people with ALS’ speech as the “ALS accent.”

During a series of wide-ranging discussions between the ALS Therapy Development Institute (ALS TDI) and Google about ALS, conversations repeatedly circled back to this specific problem of impaired speech. Michael Brenner, PhD and Julie Cattiau at Google confirmed that this was the type of problem that Google could really help with.

Over the past number of years, the clinical operations team at ALS TDI have found that even people with severe dysarthria (speech impairment) could be understood by close friends and family members. When Michael and Julie at Google learned this, they wanted to explore the idea that, with enough data, an artificial intelligence (AI) tool could learn how to interpret an impaired voice. Google has a strong track-record for building tools that can recognize speech and translate language. They saw this as an opportunity to train their standard speech recognition algorithms to identify impaired speech in much the same way as it understands accents. The premise being that existing AI tools hadn’t heard enough ALS-affected voices yet to optimize an algorithm so that it could recognize them.

Dr. Brenner argued, “Speech recognition should work for everybody.” People with dysarthria and other physical limitations should be able to have access to written and spoken communication – email, the internet, social media, options for independent access to reading, television operation, and more.

To build tools that facilitate verbal communication, ALS TDI has been recruiting people with ALS who are willing to record their voices. Some have recorded hundreds or thousands of specific phrases in order to train and optimize Google’s AI-based algorithms, thus mobile phones and computers can more reliably recognize and transcribe the phrases expressed. This might allow people with ALS to independently send text messages or to generate spoken commands using Google Home devices. The more voice samples integrated into the Google AI model, the better the model will perform.

To that end, anyone living with ALS is encouraged to participate in ALS TDI’s Precision Medicine Program. This will leverage Google’s speech recognition technology to build assistive applications that people with ALS can use to communicate again.

Click here to read more about Google’s use of AI to better understand impaired speech.


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