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Written by Kasper Nymand

Personal assistants are not just a funny gimmick anymore. Alexa, Google Assistant, Siri, and so forth are increasingly taking over and helping people where and when help is needed. From setting timers, taking notes, and getting reminders, to managing tasks, sending and receiving messages, and doing home workouts. The personal assistants are getting more intelligent as an increasing number of people have adopted these new tools and made them work for them.

Personal assistants are using artificial intelligence or machine learning to listen, understand, respond, and act on commands and intents from users. Artificial intelligence works by setting up algorithms that continuously get more precise as data is collected and stored for future reference. An example could be that you usually bake cake on Fridays. So, if you ask for recipes on Fridays, you may be suggested a chocolate cake – rather than a soup recipe. Thus, the assistant will become more personalized as it is used.

Alexa, Google Assistant, and Siri are already becoming major life, study, and work buddies for many people around the world. From the regular use-case of putting on music, managing your shopping list, or checking your to-do list, but also more sophisticated use-cases in managing daily life and assisting people with challenges or disabilities. Below, I will share a few examples of how personal assistants are used across different user groups with different use-cases in mind.

Reminders, Lists & Notes, and Timers for Managing ADHD

ADHD is one of those diagnoses that are often stigmatized or misunderstood by the mass. Most people, when they hear the term ADHD, think of the hyperactive person in school, at work, or in the gym. It can be, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be – and there are different types of ADHD and hyperactivity.

ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) has three distinctive types. The predominantly inattentive type (ADHD-I), the predominantly hyperactive-impulsive type (ADHD-H), and the combined type which has a mix of both (ADHD-C). In the past, the inattentive type was called ADD, but that is not used anymore, as it was found that ADD is simply another type of ADHD.

ADHD-I is characterized by a difficulty of following structure, difficulty of organizing, and prioritizing tasks, and a difficulty of time management. ADHD brains are often easier distracted and have very vivid and creative minds, but at the same type ADHD brains are often able to go into a mode commonly known as “hyperfocus”.

ADHD-H is characterized by a tendency to be hyperactive or impulsive, but not necessarily in the physically disturbing or fidgety way. Hyperactivity and impulsivity can also be an internal overflow of energy that the person needs to get out through creative means – for instance, starting and working on projects, painting, taking pictures, etc.

ADHD-C is characterized by a combination of both ADHD-I and ADHD-H, but as every person is different, every ADHD brain will also be different and experience different aspects and characteristics of ADHD.

Hyperfocus is the skill of staying focused on a task or activity for a prolonged period of time to an extent where time and space cease to exist. By some, the mode of hyperfocus has also been called “the ability to bend time and space”. In other words, ADHD brains are able to get an immensely load of work done in a very short period of time.

However, to enter hyperfocus, this often requires the task or activity to be meaningful to them or that they feel a sense of purpose and passion around it. In fact, many leading entrepreneurs, scientists, sports athletes, and entertainers have ADHD brains. Examples are, Albert Einstein, Emma Watson, Justin Timberlake, Bill Gates, Walt Disney, Michael Phelps, and Jamie Oliver, among many others.

A characteristic of these people is that they get so focused on their tasks that it becomes hard to stop again or maybe don't even realize that they’ve skipped both breakfast and lunch and haven’t been to the toilet since the early morning. They simply don’t notice the physical time and space around them.

Though, since ADHD brains have these challenges of structuring, organizing, and managing their time throughout the day – personal assistants are found to be a great help for many. Alexa, as an example, can keep track of your schedule and remind you throughout the day – when it is time to start, end, or switch activities. It can help managing your to-do list and recurring tasks, and you’re able to write and keep track of notes – to declutter your mind whenever a new idea, or thing to remember, pops into your mind.

When it's time to work on a task on the to-do list, many people with ADHD like to use the Pomodoro Technique to set a timer for 25 minutes for hyperfocusing on work, and automatically get reminded when it's time to take a break. This is again easily done with a simple command, “Alexa, set a pomodoro timer for 25 minutes”. Likewise, to cut out distractions around them, they may ask Alexa to play music for work.

The Pomodoro Technique is a life hack to manage your workdays and balance work with periods of high focus (or hyperfocus) throughout your day – followed by short- and long breaks in-between pomodoros.

The flow often follows the sequence of: – 1x Pomodoro of 25 minutes – 1x Short Break of 5 minutes – 1x Pomodoro of 25 minutes – 1x Short Break of 5 minutes – 1x Pomodoro of 25 minutes – 1x Short Break of 5 minutes – 1x Pomodoro of 25 minutes – 1x Long Break of 15-30 minutes – Repeat.

These are just examples of how personal assistants help ADHD brains in their daily lives, but at the same time, this set up and these features may be useful for any types of brain. Personally, this is very similar to how I keep on track with my work.

Smart Home for Cooking and Safety, Live Transcription of Calls, and Object Identification for Managing Blindness and Hearing Loss

If you don’t have these challenges yourself and don’t know anybody who does, you may never have thought about these use-cases before. Personal assistants are increasingly being used by people with any form of disabilities or challenges in their day-to-day life. This may be to assist people with loss of eyesight or people with hearing loss.

How do people with blindness cook?

I’m glad you asked. Assistants such as Alexa and Google Assistant are increasingly getting smarter as more smart home devices become available. To most, these new intelligent devices may just be a “nice-to-have”. However, for some, they’re more of a “need-to-have”. For instance, how does a blind person set the temperature and timer of an oven to cook the dish they just put in the oven? They used to count how many times they pressed the buttons on the manual timer and then moved on to manually setting the temperature on the oven. Now, they say, “Alexa, set the oven to 25 minutes at 200 degrees”.

But how did they even cook the dish in the first place? Before they would need either a recipe book made for blind people, remember the recipe themselves, or have somebody else reading the recipe to them. Now, assistants can help here too. “Alexa, help me cook brownies”, and Alexa will list the ingredients needed and go through the directions, step-by-step. You can move back and forward, skip, repeat, and so forth as need be.

How do they order new groceries? Again, they ask Alexa. “Alexa, restock on toilet paper and toothpaste” or “Alexa, order the ingredients needed for brownies”. Alexa will place the order and tell when it is expected to be delivered. This may seem small to some, but this is an immense improvement of convenience for many.

Right now, further advancement is going on in, for instance, the assistants’ ability to recognize objects through computer vision. Making blind people able to show an object to the camera on their smart device, like an Echo Show, and have it tell them what it is – and how it looks. The same technology is currently used in describing pictures, to both categorize and sort photos, but also to assist people with a sight challenge.

There are many other examples, but already at this point, these personal assistants are life-changers for many people around the world. These people can now too live more independently and manage more tasks on their own – in a more convenient and personalized manner than ever before.

How do people with hearing loss connect with friends and family on voice and video calls?

Being able to connect with peers through the internet is increasingly important and part of many people’s every day, but how do you do a voice call if you’re hearing impaired? You may, of course, choose to do a video call instead – in the case that both the hearing-impaired and the other person have learned sign language. However, how often is it the case that the other person knows and speaks sign language – if they’re not usually talking with a person with permanent hearing loss? Not often.

Alexa, as part of its speech recognition technologies, is able to live transcribe voice and video calls as they’re happening. Now, with the tap of a button, the conversations can be transcribed directly onto the screen on for instance an Echo Show. Making people with hearing loss able to connect with friends and family through the internet without the need for both (or more) people knowing and understanding sign language. The conversation will show up directly on the screen as subtitles in your favorite movie.

Another example, how do people with hearing loss notice the smoke alarms – if they can’t hear them? Well, in the future, they may be able to connect these essential devices to their smart home systems too. Through that, set up a routine to turn on and pulse all lights at 100% in a red color and make their watch vibrate to alert. This way, even if you’re sleeping, you’ll most likely wake up and instantly know that it’s time to leave the house.

Reading and Writing with the Help of an Assistant

Speech recognition can be used in many ways. Some of which we have already touched upon earlier, but what about the learning and managing new or challenging skills? Personal assistants are now beginning to incorporate more two-way ongoing conversations. This means that both children and adults can use an assistant like Alexa to help them learn to read, spell words and write, or perhaps to learn a new language.

Using its speech recognition, Alexa can help young children or adults with speech disabilities speak more clearly. You can ask it to read with you or help you spell out a word. Reading books, both textbooks and audiobooks, can now also be assisted by Alexa. Opening a whole new world for people with disabilities within these areas.

Reading, writing, and responding to messages is easier. You can simply speak out what you want to write, and the assistant will take care of the rest. Likewise, receiving and responding to messages is a breeze.

Personal Assistants Help Increase Independence and Life Satisfaction

Now, with all of these examples, among many others, it is safe to say that personal assistants are here to stay. They’re only getting better and more personalized by the day to assist with all kinds of activities, challenges, and actions.

Down the line, assistants may be able to take over many of the daily tasks that are essential, but tasks that are not adding much value to your life in themselves. In other words, freeing up time for you to do more of what you want to do more of – and letting the assistant handle or assist the distractions and more cumbersome parts of your life.

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