Mental Health Startup Uses Voice ‘Biomarkers’ To Detect Signs Of Depression And Anxiety

Young female character having a panic attack, an imaginary monster shadow silhouette, mental health issues, psychology

The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog,” Rima Seiilova-Olson says slowly and emphatically over Zoom.

The simple sentence holds enormous value for mental health care, she explains, smiling as if to acknowledge that it might be less than obvious how a silly phrase could be so meaningful to a computer programmer and leader of an artificial intelligence startup.

The short saying contains every letter of the alphabet and phoneme in the English language, says Seiilova-Olson, an immigrant from Kazakhstan who is cofounder and chief scientist of Kintsugi Mindful Wellness. Kintsugi believes these sounds offer invaluable insight that can help mental health providers better support people with depression and anxiety.

The Bay Area-based company is building AI software that analyzes short clips of speech to detect depression and anxiety. This so-called voice biomarker software is being integrated into clinical call centers, telehealth services and remote monitoring apps to screen and triage patients reaching out for support, helping providers more quickly and easily assess their needs and respond.

“There’s just not a lot of visibility as to who is severely depressed or anxious.”

Kintsugi CEO and co-founder Grace Chang

Seiilova-Olson, 36, first met co-founder and CEO Grace Chang, 40, a Taiwanese immigrant now based in Berkeley, in 2019 at an open AI hackathon in San Francisco. Surprised to cross paths at a male-dominated event, the women began comparing notes about their respective personal challenges trying to access mental health care:

Seiilova-Olson had struggled to secure a therapist during postpartum depression with her first child, and when Chang had needed her own support, she said it had taken months for anyone from Kaiser to call her back.

“Living in the Bay Area, you can push a button and a car can come to you or food can come to you,” Chang says. “But this was really a challenge.” As engineers, they viewed the dilemma differently than clinicians might.

“We saw this as an infrastructure problem, where you have so many people trying to jam through that front door,” Chang explains. “But there’s just not a lot of visibility as to who is severely depressed or anxious, who is low-to-moderate. And if we could provide this information to those frontline practitioners, then we’d maybe have an opportunity to greatly alleviate that bottleneck.”

Kintsugi was born out of that idea in 2019. It sits in a competitive space of health tech startups like Ellipsis Health and Winter Light Labs that are using voice biomarkers to detect mental health or cognitive issues, built on research showing that certain linguistic patterns and characteristics of a person’s voice can be correlated with psychiatric or neurological conditions.

Kintsugi last year raised $8 million in seed funding led by Acrew Capital, and in February, announced it had closed a $20 million Series A round led by Insight Partners, which valued the company at nearly $85 million, according to PitchBook.

In-person mental health facilities typically use questionnaires to gauge the severity of patients’ anxiety or depression, measures known as PHQ-9 and GAD-7 scores. But during telehealth visits or phone consults — where face-to-face interaction is lost, making it harder to pick up on symptoms — Kintsugi’s technology helps to fill that gap.

Nicha Cumberbatch, assistant director of public health at Spora Health, a provider focused on health equity and people of color, uses Kintsugi’s software to assess women in its all-virtual, doula-led maternal health program, Spora Mommas.

The voice analysis tool, which Spora began using for patient consultations a few weeks ago, has helped Cumberbatch identify women who are, or may be at risk of, experiencing anxiety and depression before, during or after their pregnancies. When a patient starts speaking to a Spora clinician or doula on Zoom, Kintsugi’s AI begins listening to and analyzing her voice.

After processing 20 seconds of speech, the AI will then spit out the patient’s PHQ-9 and GAD-7. The employee can then use that mental health score to decide what additional testing may be needed and how best to advise or direct the patient to resources — like a psychiatrist, cognitive behavioral therapist or obstetrician.

Cumberbatch says Kintsugi’s technology is allowing her to “​​keep a more watchful eye” on her patients “and then move forward with proactive recommendations around mitigating their symptoms.” And while it’s not meant to replace clinicians or formal medical evaluations, she adds, it can be used as a screening tool to “allow us to have a more well-rounded, 360-view of the patient when we don’t have them in front of our face.”

“That technology… [allows] us to have a more well-rounded, 360-view of the patient when we don’t have them in front of our face.”

Nicha Cumberbatch, assistant director of public health at Spora Health

Dr. ​​Jaskanwal Deep Singh Sara, a Mayo Clinic cardiologist who has collaborated with Ellipsis and led research on potential uses of voice biomarkers for cardiology, cautions that while the technology is promising for health care, the field has a long way to go to ensure that it’s accurate, safe and beneficial for patients and clinicians alike.

“It’s not ready for primetime by any stretch of the imagination yet,” Dr. Sara says. Studies in psychiatry, neurology, cardiology and other areas have shown an association between voice biomarkers and various conditions or diseases, but they haven’t shown how this relationship can be used to improve clinical outcomes, he says.

Such research is “not the same as saying, ‘How can we instrumentalize it in clinical practice, and how feasible is it? How effective is it in gauging an individual’s medical trajectory?’” he explains. “If it doesn’t provide any benefits in terms of how we manage them, then the question is: why would you do it?”

He says addressing those questions is “one of many next steps that we have to undertake on this” and that larger clinical trials are needed to answer them. “If it makes health care delivery cheaper or more efficient, or if it improves outcomes for patients, then that’s great,” he adds. “But I think we need to demonstrate that first with clinical trials, and that hasn’t been done.”

To address these issues and validate its software, Kintsugi is conducting clinical studies, including with the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, and the National Science Foundation has awarded Kintsugi multiple grants to ramp up its research. The company is also pursuing FDA “de novo” clearance and continuing to build its own dataset to improve its machine learning models.

(Data and insights from Kintsugi’s voice journaling app, as well as conversations with call centers or telehealth providers and clinical collaborations with various hospitals, all become part of an enormous dataset that feeds Kintsugi’s AI.) Seiilova-Olson says this self-generated, unfettered proprietary dataset is what sets Kintsugi apart in the AI health care space — where many technologies are reliant on outside data from electronic health records.

That collection of troves of data on individuals’ speech can be concerning — particularly in the mental health and wellness space, which is widely considered a regulatory Wild West. (These products and services are often not subject to the same laws and stringent standards that govern how licensed clinicians provide formal medical care to patients.)

But Kintsugi’s founders say that patient privacy is protected because what matters for its technology is not what people are saying, but how they are saying it. Patients are also asked for their consent to be recorded and care is not affected by their decision to opt in or opt out, according to the founders.

Kintsugi says it has served an estimated 34,000 patients. The company is currently working with a large health system with 90 hospitals and clinics across 22 states, and they are active in a care management call center that services roughly 20 million calls per year. It is also partnering with Pegasystems, which offers customer service tools for health care and other industries, to help payers and providers handle inbound calls.

Chang says other customers include Fortune 10 enterprise payers, pharmaceutical organizations and digital health applications focused on remote patient monitoring, but that she could not yet share their names. Kintsugi’s clinical partners include Children’s Hospital Colorado, Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital in Florida, Chelsea and Westminster Hospital in London and SJD Barcelona Children’s Hospital in Spain, Chang said.

Prentice Tom, Kintsugi’s chief medical officer, adds that it’s working with the University of Arkansas to explore how the tool can be used to possibly identify patients with suicidal ideation, or increased or severe suicide risk, as well as with Loma Linda University, to look at how the technology can be used to spot burnout amongst clinicians.

The team is also looking for ways to expand availability and uses for younger and elderly patients, as well as for maternal and postpartum populations. And beyond patients themselves, it’s perhaps nurses who are benefiting most from Kintsugi’s work, according to the founding team: having a triage tool that helps reduce administrative work or the time spent asking generic questions enables nurses to more seamlessly move patients in their journey.

But Tom, a Harvard-trained emergency medicine physician and former faculty member at Stanford University’s Department of Emergency Medicine, says Kintsugi is now doing far more than addressing infrastructure issues alone. It’s democratizing access to mental health care, Tom said, moving away from a physician-centric paradigm that caters more to people with significant enough depression that they require medical evaluation.

“This tool actually creates a view of mental health in terms of mental wellness,” Tom said, “where everyone has the opportunity to understand where they sit on the spectrum and that actually stratifies treatment options well beyond the current infrastructure.”

I’m a Senior Writer at Forbes covering the intersection of technology and society. Before joining Forbes, I spent three years as a tech reporter at Politico, where I covered

Source: Mental Health Startup Uses Voice ‘Biomarkers’ To Detect Signs Of Depression And Anxiety

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Future Technology: 22 Ideas About To Change Our World

Technology is rapidly improving, offering new innovations and revolutionary projects every year. At any given moment, scientists, engineers and some very sharp minds are out there creating the next piece of future technology that will change our lives. It can feel like scientific progress is steady but we have lived through a period of immense technological improvement in the last half century.

There are innovations happening right now that are ripped straight from the pages of science-fiction. Whether that is robots that can read minds, NFTS, bionic eyes, smartwatches that are powered by your sweat or plenty of other mind-blowing technology, there is a lot to expect from the world of future technology. Below we’ve picked out some of the biggest and most interesting ideas.

Brain reading robots

No longer a science fiction trope, the use of brain reading technology has improved hugely in recent years. One of the most interesting and practical uses we’ve seen tested so far comes from researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL).

Thanks to a machine-learning algorithm, a robot arm and a brain-computer interface, these researchers have managed to create a means for tetraplegic patients (those who can’t move their upper or lower body) to interact with the world.

In tests, the robot arm would perform simple tasks like moving around an obstacle. The algorithm would then interprets signals from the brain using an EEG cap and automatically determine when the arm had made a move that the brain considered incorrect, for example moving too close to the obstacle or going too fast.

Over time the algorithm can then adjust to the individuals preferences and brain signals. In the future this could lead to wheelchairs controlled by the brain or assistance machines for tetraplegic patients.

3D printed bones

3D printing is an industry promising everything from cheap house building through to affordable rugged armour, but one of the most interesting uses of the technology is the building of 3D printed bones.

The company Ossiform specialises in medical 3D printing, creating patient-specific replacements of different bones from tricalcium phosphate – a material with similar properties to human bones.

Using these 3D printed bones is surprisingly easy. A hospital can perform an MRI which is then sent to Ossiform who create a 3D model of the patient-specific implant that is needed. The surgeon accepts the design and then once it is printed, it can be used in surgery.

What is special about these 3D printed bones is that because of the use of tricalcium phosphate, the body will remodel the implants into vascularised bone. That means they will enable the full restoration of function that the bone it is replacing had. To achieve the best integration possible, the implants are of a porous structure and feature large pores and canals for cells to attach to and reform bone.

Lab-made dairy products

You’ve heard of cultured “meat” and Wagyu steaks grown cell by cell in a laboratory, but what about other animal-based foodstuffs? A growing number of biotech companies around the world are investigating lab-made dairy, including milk, ice-cream, cheese and eggs. And more than one think they’ve cracked it.

The dairy industry is not environmentally friendly, not even close. It’s responsible for 4 per cent of the world’s carbon emissions, more than air travel and shipping combined, and demand is growing for a greener splash to pour into our tea cups and cereal bowls.

Compared with meat, milk isn’t actually that difficult to create in a lab. Rather than grow it from stem cells, most researchers attempt to produce it in a process of fermentation, looking to produce the milk proteins whey and casein. Some products are already at market in the US, from companies such as Perfect Day, with ongoing work focused on reproducing the mouthfeel and nutritional benefits of regular cow’s milk.

Beyond that, researchers are working on lab-produced mozzarella that melts perfectly on top of a pizza, as well other cheeses and ice-cream.

Hydrogen planes

Carbon emissions are a huge concern when it comes to commercial flights, but there is a potential solution and it has received a lot of funding.

A £15 million UK project has unveiled plans for a hydrogen-powered plane. This project is known as Fly Zero and is being led by the Aerospace Technology Institute in conjunction with the UK government.

The project has come up with a concept for a mid-size plane powered completely by liquid hydrogen. It would have the capacity to fly roughly 279 passengers halfway around the world without stopping.

If this technology could be actualised, it could mean a zero-carbon flight with no stops between London and Western America or London to New Zealand with a single stop.

Digital “twins” that track your health

In Star Trek, where many of our ideas of future technology germinated, human beings can walk into the medbay and have their entire body digitally scanned for signs of illness and injury. Doing that in real life would, say the makers of Q Bio, improve health outcomes and alleviate the load on doctors at the same time.

The US company has built a scanner that will measure hundreds of biomarkers in around an hour, from hormone levels to the fat building up in your liver to the markers of inflammation or any number of cancers. It intends to use this data to produce a 3D digital avatar of a patient’s body – known as a digital twin – that can be tracked over time and updated with each new scan.

Q Bio CEO Jeff Kaditz hopes it will lead to a new era of preventative, personalised medicine in which the vast amounts of data collected not only help doctors prioritise which patients need to be seen most urgently, but also to develop more sophisticated ways of diagnosing illness. Read an interview with him here.

Virtual reality universes

After making its dramatic name change, the company once known as Facebook has become Meta. This marks Zuckerberg and his huge team’s move into the metaverse – an embodied internet mostly accessed through virtual and augmented reality.

As part of this move, we will start to see Meta putting more time into equipment for accessing this new world – mostly in VR. Announced back in 2021, Meta has been developing a new headset under the title ‘Project Cambria’.

Unlike the brand’s previous VR ventures like the Oculus Quest 2, this won’t be a device for the average consumer, instead looking to offer the best VR experience they can make.

The Cambria has been reported to be focused on advanced eye and face tracking (to improve accuracy of avatars and your in-game movements), a higher resolution, increased field-of-view and even trying to make the headset significantly smaller.

Between Meta, Google, Sony and plenty of other big tech companies, VR is getting lots of funding right now and will be seeing drastic improvements in the next couple of years.

Direct air capture

Through the process of photosynthesis, trees have remained one of the best ways to reduce the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere. However, new technology could perform the same role as trees, absorbing carbon dioxide at greater levels while also taking up less land.

This technology is known as Direct Air Capture (DAC). It involves taking carbon dioxide from the air and either storing the CO2 in deep geological caves under ground, or using it in combination with hydrogen to produce synthetic fuels.

While this technology has great potential, it has a lot of complications right now. There are now direct air capture facilities up and running, but the current models require a huge amount of energy to run. If the energy levels can be reduced in the future, DAC could prove to be one of the best technological advances for the future of the environment.

Green funerals

Sustainable living is becoming a priority for individuals squaring up to the realities of the climate crisis, but what about eco-friendly dying? Death tends to be a carbon-heavy process, one last stamp of our ecological footprint. The average cremation reportedly releases 400kg of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, for example. So what’s a greener way to go?

In Washington State in the US, you could be composted instead. Bodies are laid in chambers with bark, soil, straw and other compounds that promote natural decomposition. Within 30 days, your body is reduced to soil that can be returned to a garden or woodland. Recompose, the company behind the process, claims it uses an eighth of the carbon dioxide of a cremation.

An alternative technology uses fungi. In 2019, the late actor Luke Perry was buried in a bespoke “mushroom suit” designed by a start-up called Coeio. The company claims its suit, made with mushrooms and other microorganisms that aid decomposition and neutralise toxins that are realised when a body usually decays.

Most alternative ways of disposing of our bodies after death are not based on new technology; they’re just waiting for societal acceptance to catch up. Another example is alkaline hydrolysis, which involves breaking the body down into its chemical components over a six-hour process in a pressurised chamber. It’s legal in a number of US states and uses fewer emissions compared with more traditional methods.

Artificial eyes

Bionic eyes have been a mainstay of science fiction for decades, but now real-world research is beginning to catch up with far-sighted storytellers. A raft of technologies is coming to market that restore sight to people with different kinds of vision impairment.

In January 2021, surgeons implanted the world’s first artificial cornea into a bilaterally blind, 78-year-old man. When his bandages were removed, the patient could read and recognise family members immediately. The implant also fuses naturally to human tissue without the recipient’s body rejecting it.

Likewise in 2020, Belgian scientists developed an artificial iris fitted to smart contact lenses that correct a number of vision disorders. And scientists are even working on wireless brain implants that bypass the eyes altogether.

Researchers at Montash University in Australia are working on trials for a system whereby users wear a pair of glasses fitted with a camera. This sends data directly to the implant, which sits on the surface of the brain and gives the user a rudimentary sense of sight.

Airports for drones and flying taxis

Our congested cities are in desperate need of a breather and relief may come from the air as opposed to the roads. Plans for a different kind of transport hub – one for delivery drones and electric air-taxis – are becoming a reality, with the first Urban Air Port receiving funding from the UK government.

It’s being built in Coventry. The hub will be a pilot scheme and hopefully a proof of concept for the company behind it. Powered completely off-grid by a hydrogen generator, the idea is to remove the need for as many delivery vans and personal cars on our roads, replacing them with a clean alternative in the form of a new type of small aircraft, with designs being developed by Huyundai and Airbus, amongst others.

Infrastructure is going to be important. Organisations like the Civil Aviation Authority are looking into the establishment of air corridors that might link a city centre with a local airport or distribution centre.

Energy storing bricks

Scientists have found a way to store energy in the red bricks that are used to build houses.

Researchers led by Washington University in St Louis, in Missouri, US, have developed a method that can turn the cheap and widely available building material into “smart bricks” that can store energy like a battery.

Although the research is still in the proof-of-concept stage, the scientists claim that walls made of these bricks “could store a substantial amount of energy” and can “be recharged hundreds of thousands of times within an hour”.

The researchers developed a method to convert red bricks into a type of energy storage device called a supercapacitor.

This involved putting a conducting coating, known as Pedot, onto brick samples, which then seeped through the fired bricks’ porous structure, converting them into “energy storing electrodes”.

Iron oxide, which is the red pigment in the bricks, helped with the process, the researchers said.

Sweat powered smartwatches

Engineers at the University of Glasgow have developed a new type of flexible supercapacitor, which stores energy, replacing the electrolytes found in conventional batteries with sweat.

It can be fully charged with as little as 20 microlitres of fluid and is robust enough to survive 4,000 cycles of the types of flexes and bends it might encounter in use.

The device works by coating polyester cellulose cloth in a thin layer of a polymer, which acts as the supercapacitor’s electrode.

As the cloth absorbs its wearer’s sweat, the positive and negative ions in the sweat interact with the polymer’s surface, creating an electrochemical reaction which generates energy.

“Conventional batteries are cheaper and more plentiful than ever before but they are often built using unsustainable materials which are harmful to the environment,” says Professor Ravinder Dahiya, head of the Bendable Electronics and Sensing Technologies (Best) group, based at the University of Glasgow’s James Watt School of Engineering.

“That makes them challenging to dispose of safely and potentially harmful in wearable devices, where a broken battery could spill toxic fluids on to skin.

“What we’ve been able to do for the first time is show that human sweat provides a real opportunity to do away with those toxic materials entirely, with excellent charging and discharging performance.

Self-healing ‘living concrete’

Scientists have developed what they call living concrete by using sand, gel and bacteria.

Researchers said this building material has structural load-bearing function, is capable of self-healing and is more environmentally friendly than concrete – which is the second most-consumed material on Earth after water.

The team from the University of Colorado Boulder believe their work paves the way for future building structures that could “heal their own cracks, suck up dangerous toxins from the air or even glow on command”.

Living robots

Tiny hybrid robots made using stem cells from frog embryos could one day be used to swim around human bodies to specific areas requiring medicine, or to gather microplastic in the oceans.

“These are novel living machines,” said Joshua Bongard, a computer scientist and robotics expert at the University of Vermont, who co-developed the millimetre-wide bots, known as xenobots.

“They’re neither a traditional robot nor a known species of animal. It’s a new class of artefact: a living, programmable organism.”

Internet for everyone

We can’t seem to live without the internet (how else would you read sciencefocus.com?), but still only around half the world’s population is connected. There are many reasons for this, including economic and social reasons, but for some the internet just isn’t accessible because they have no connection.

Google is slowly trying to solve the problem using helium balloons to beam the internet to inaccessible areas, while Facebook has abandoned plans to do the same using drones, which means companies like Hiber are stealing a march.

They have taken a different approach by launching their own network of shoebox-sized microsatellites into low Earth orbit, which wake up a modem plugged into your computer or device when it flies over and delivers your data.

Their satellites orbit the Earth 16 times a day and are already being used by organisations like The British Antarctic Survey to provide internet access to very extreme of our planet.

Coffee power

London’s coffee industry creates over 200,000 tonnes of waste every year, so what do we do with it? Entrepreneur Arthur Kay’s big idea is to use his company, bio-bean, to turn 85 per cent of coffee waste into biofuels for heating buildings and powering transport. Already the world’s largest recycler of coffee waste, the company collects coffee grounds from large chains and restaurants as well as smaller coffee shops, and transports them to its processing plant in Cambridgeshire.

There, the grounds are dried and processed before being used to create products such as pellets or logs for biofuel, bio plastics or flavourings.

Drown forest fires in sound

Forest fires could one day be dealt with by drones that would direct loud noises at the trees below. Since sound is made up of pressure waves, it can be used to disrupt the air surrounding a fire, essentially cutting off the supply of oxygen to the fuel. At the right frequency, the fire simply dies out, as researchers at George Mason University in Virginia recently demonstrated with their sonic extinguisher. Apparently, bass frequencies work best.

The AI scientist

Cut off a flatworm’s head, and it’ll grow a new one. Cut it in half, and you’ll have two new worms. Fire some radiation at it, and it’ll repair itself. Scientists have wanted to work out the mechanisms involved for some time, but the secret has eluded them. Enter an AI coded at Tufts University, Massachusetts. By analysing and simulating countless scenarios, the computer was able to solve the mystery of the flatworm’s regeneration in just 42 hours. In the end it produced a comprehensive model of how the flatworm’s genes allow it to regenerate.

Although humans still need to feed the AI with information, the machine in this experiment was able to create a new, abstract theory independently – a huge step towards the development of a conscious computer, and potentially a landmark step in the way we carry out research.

Car batteries that charge in 10 minutes

Fast-charging of electric vehicles is seen as key to their take-up, so motorists can stop at a service station and fully charge their car in the time it takes to get a coffee and use the toilet – taking no longer than a conventional break.

But rapid charging of lithium-ion batteries can degrade the batteries, researchers at Penn State University in the US say. This is because the flow of lithium particles known as ions from one electrode to another to charge the unit and hold the energy ready for use does not happen smoothly with rapid charging at lower temperatures.

However, they have now found that if the batteries could heat to 60°C for just 10 minutes and then rapidly cool again to ambient temperatures, lithium spikes would not form and heat damage would be avoided.

The battery design they have come up with is self-heating, using a thin nickel foil which creates an electrical circuit that heats in less than 30 seconds to warm the inside of the battery. The rapid cooling that would be needed after the battery is charged would be done using the cooling system designed into the car.

Their study, published in the journal Joule, showed they could fully charge an electrical vehicle in 10 minutes.

Artificial neurons on silicon chips

Scientists have found a way to attach artificial neurons onto silicon chips, mimicking the neurons in our nervous system and copying their electrical properties.

“Until now neurons have been like black boxes, but we have managed to open the black box and peer inside,” said Professor Alain Nogaret, from the University of Bath, who led the project.

“Our work is paradigm-changing because it provides a robust method to reproduce the electrical properties of real neurons in minute detail.

“But it’s wider than that, because our neurons only need 140 nanowatts of power. That’s a billionth the power requirement of a microprocessor, which other attempts to make synthetic neurons have used.

Researchers hope their work could be used in medical implants to treat conditions such as heart failure and Alzheimer’s as it requires so little power.

Floating farms

The UN predicts there will be two billion more people in the world by 2050, creating a demand for 70 per cent more food. By that time, 80 per cent of us will be living in cities, and most food we eat in urban areas is brought in. So farms moored on the sea or inland lakes close to cities would certainly reduce food miles.

But how would they work? A design by architect Javier Ponce of Forward Thinking Architecture shows a 24m-tall, three-tiered structure with solar panels on top to provide energy. The middle tier grows a variety of veg over an area of 51,000m2, using not soil but nutrients in liquid. These nutrients and plant matter would drop into the bottom layer to feed fish, which are farmed in an enclosed space.

A single Smart Floating Farm measuring 350 x 200m would produce an estimated 8.1 tonnes of vegetables and 1.7 tonnes of fish a year. The units are designed to bolt together, which is handy since we’ll need a lot of them: Dubai, for instance, imports 11,000 tonnes of fruit and veg every day.

Pleistocene Park

Russian scientist Sergey Zimov hopes to recreate a 12,000-year-old environment in a wildlife park for herbivores like wild horse and bison, with extinct megafauna like mammoths replaced by modern hybrids. Zimov will study the impact of the animals on environment and climate.

Source: Future technology: 22 ideas about to change our world | BBC Science Focus Magazine

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AI And The Secret To Employee Happiness

When I started working as a mainframe operator in IT in 1988, I felt like I was part of a secret club. None of my family understood what I was doing; my friends would ask, “what’s a mainframe and why do you have to work nights?”

My onboarding took months, and a typical workday began with staring at a blank screen. Since mainframes didn’t come with a mouse, I would enter memorized commands like “=3.4” and “Sys3.AF*” to navigate the data sets I needed to find.I don’t think many workers today would put up with that.

Any manager who has tried to hire an employee today will agree the war for talent is real. Job perks like free lunches and on-site laundry just don’t cut it anymore. To recruit talent today, there’s really one thing that every enterprise needs to do: Make work better.

Make work easy

I’ve found that companies invest in digital transformation for three reasons: To work faster, to work more efficiently, and to change or expand their business models. But the end result of any digital transformation should be a better experience, and leaders often neglect the everyday experience of the workers who actually achieve these goals.

Consider this. Outside of work, most people have grown used to finding a new home, getting pet care, and organizing travel all with just a swipe of their finger on the touchscreen. They expect the same level of ease when it comes to the technologies they use at work. It’s no coincidence that the latest release of the Now Platform invested so heavily in improving user experience.

Sure, the interface looks beautiful. But the experience goes deeper than the surface by making the usage more intuitive. Good user experience is about simplifying and hiding complexity so that using it comes naturally to anyone. Make work easy.

Flex on flexibility

Many workplaces have returned to on-site or hybrid work, but I don’t think we’ll bring back the rigid workday schedule. The last two years have taught us that, while face-to-face and real-time interactions are invaluable, many other tasks can be done just as well, if not better, asynchronously.

Yes, it wasn’t fun to work from a makeshift standing desk in the kitchen while keeping one eye on a freakishly fast toddler. It’s no wonder why some employees have eagerly returned to the ergonomic office stocked with free snacks. But some of us love attending a meeting without sitting in traffic, having lunch without navigating a packed cafeteria, or taking a two-hour afternoon break to compensate for that evening call with Tokyo. You have to accommodate both types—and everyone in between.

Leaders learned the hard way in 2020 that you can’t just flip a switch and change the way a business is run. You have to stay ready with workplace technology that can support various—and changing—work models.

Flexibility, supported with a solid digital foundation, is no longer a choice. Clearly communicate what your employees need to deliver and let them decide where, when, and how. Or you can try to force a rigid work model and watch your talent flock to another employer.

AI and human intelligence aren’t mutually exclusive. They work best when they work together.

Automate the mundane

Automation has freed employees from many repetitive tasks, making work more fulfilling and creative. The digitization of work can go a step further by tapping artificial intelligence that effectively sorts through massive amounts of data and makes prescriptive recommendations. AI can even be used to make it easier for employees to be promoted internally—a huge factor in retaining and rewarding your workforce.

There’s a misconception that AI is designed to replace human workers. But for me, artificial intelligence is actually about the interface between people and machines, making lives more interesting by automating the mundane, removing friction, and presenting the right information and insights.

Better together

Knowledge workers thrive when they can harness technology to make more effective decisions. These decisions aren’t only reactive but also proactive—something that AI enables through its predictive power, which can anticipate and adjust to a world full of constantly changing variables.

When it comes to digital transformation, we think of how it impacts the bottom line by improving speed and efficiency. But how do we improve speed and efficiency? By empowering our talent with the delightful and intuitive experiences they deserve.

AI and human intelligence aren’t mutually exclusive. They work best when they work together.

Dave Wright is ServiceNow’s chief innovation officer and acts as an evangelist for how to improve workplace productivity. He has worked with thousands of

Source: AI And The Secret To Employee Happiness

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Does AI Have The Answer To The Customer Experience Riddle?

The telecommunications industry is so many enterprises wrapped into one—they have to get every aspect of customer experience right. It’s a challenge every organization can learn from.

Everywhere you look, there’s another business attempting to harness data, analytics, and artificial intelligence to help them increase sales and crack the code to provide higher-quality, lower-cost goods and services.

Travel and hospitality companies want to make persuasive, personalized offers at just the right moment to drive bookings. Retailers are honing inventory management to better anticipate customer demand and drive same-store sales—while navigating the current supply chain challenges. Hospitals, health insurers, and even governments utilize AI to comb through vast data sets to develop predictive models of disease.

Financial institutions have accelerated credit and risk underwriting decisions using AI/ML models; they’ve also enhanced customer satisfaction online and on the phone with AI-driven virtual assistants. Manufacturers are employing AI to improve process efficiency, enable predictive maintenance, and scale quality control efforts in their core operations. And everyone is trying to reduce customer churn.

When you stop and think about it, the telecommunications industry and its myriad communications service providers (CSPs) do all of this—advertising, supply chain, online and physical stores, operations and maintenance, customer care—and more, for both consumers and businesses. Thus, CSPs offer a unique lens through which to examine how companies in any industry can utilize AI to convert data to insights and information to actions.

The pressure on CSPs to take action, to do more with less, has never been greater.

Growing demands on the network, growing demands for the network

CSPs are in an unusual position: As global demand for data has grown 256% between 2016 and 2020, intense competition has meant that revenues grew less than 13% over the same period. Operators have so far relied upon technical advances and gaining scale efficiencies through consolidation to manage the gap, but one of the greatest untapped opportunities remaining is to become dramatically better providers of customer service.

While the concept of “AI-driven customer service” may seem like an oxymoron—after all, what do algorithms really know about serving people better?—the answer now turns out to literally be more than you could ever know.

The decline of third-party cookies has many operators renewing their focus on collecting and acting upon their own first-party data across the customer lifecycle.

In an evolving industry like telecommunications, the race for customer acquisition and retention is paramount. This is driving heightened operator focus on better advertising performance and retail sales—whether in their own stores, their retailer partners, or various digital channels. AI can help here with informing target audience creation, creative optimization, and inventory forecasts.

Related: Google and Automation Anywhere reimagine customer experience by giving virtual agents a boost

The decline of third-party cookies has many operators renewing their focus on collecting and acting upon their own first-party data across the customer lifecycle. Here, too, AI models can help CSPs identify and act upon signals, such as usage patterns or customer care calls. This type of customer context, an often overlooked signal, can be especially valuable when it comes to identifying “at risk”’ customers for retention efforts.

Contact centers supporting upwards of 100 million subscribers are an expensive endeavor. Several top global operators have turned to conversational AI to decrease agent volumes and document AI tools to shorten call handle times. Some companies report Google’s conversational AI can cut the number of customer inquiries that need a human agent by half.  Besides helping reduce costs and maintain margins for the operator, many customers also appreciate the efficiency and control of self-service.

Furthermore, while CSPs may not have a “factory” in the traditional sense, their network operations are far-flung and national, even global, in scale. They must operate at the industry standard of “five 9’s” (i.e., 99.999%) reliability for emergency communications and simultaneously deliver massive amounts of bandwidth to meet the public’s insatiable demand for communications and data.

And if it seems like a lot now, just consider the 23% annual bandwidth growth the industry will undergo with the rise of 5G and all the IoT, VR, and Web3 experiences that come with it. Keeping up, and keeping customers happy, will take new levels of network automation and predictive maintenance that only AI can provide.

Related: Deploying and operating cloud-based 5G networks

TELUS, a world-leading communications technology company based in Canada, is already leveraging conversational AI through Google Cloud’s CCAI Insights to better serve its roster of global clients and their customers.

Read more:

Most Important Artificial Intelligence Skill: A Sense of Imagination

The Rise of Artificial Intelligence in Business and Society

How Artificial Intelligence Powered Customer Service Will Help Customer Support Agents

Artificial Empathy: Call Center Employees Are Using Voice Analytics to Predict How You Feel

“As a company that supports our customers through many channels, we are able to provide a streamlined experience that transitions from digital support to live agent support,” Phil Schultz, vice-president of customer experience, told us in an interview. “With this new experience, we are able to provide a simple, consistent, intuitive, and friendly experience for simpler tasks, with our agents being able to focus on supporting our customers’ more complex issues. CCAI and Data Insight help TELUS ensure our customers get the support they need, when they need it.”

Realizing the value of AI for customer experience

Of course all of these grand data aspirations are easy to articulate but hard to implement—at Google Cloud, we know these challenges first hand. It’s why we empathize with the added challenges CSPs face from their legacy systems, and from the network complexity that has arisen over generations of technology and industry consolidation. It’s also why we’re excited to be partnering with top CSPs to solve these challenges.

Through our experiences in these partnerships, Google Cloud has identified four key success factors for driving business value from AI applied across the customer experience:

  1. Clear Focus. Success starts with a clear and shared understanding of what CSPs are solving for and the business value of doing so. This clarity will drive every activity to follow, with the business value serving as an important motivator to plow through challenges.
  2. No Silos. Nearly all enterprises struggle with how to break down data silos. Successful companies have a proactive strategy for data integration, data management, and analytics platforms to address the current as well as future needs.
  3. Data-driven. Choosing which part of the problem to tackle first and how to do so is a major determinant of value. Leading companies rely on data to help inform their approach to everything from deciding which use cases to tackle first, to developing and optimizing AI-driven virtual assistants.
  4. Shared risk & reward. We have found that success takes a partnership in which incentives are aligned, with partners having skin in the game.

In Google Cloud’s new report, “Using AI to win the customer experience battle in telecommunications,” we delve into these dimensions, using CSPs as a vehicle, and examine new and innovative ways to apply AI, and best practices for building an AI program focused on delivering value, not just promises.

For TELUS, the investment of time and planning required to execute on AI was apparent from the start. “Through our 10-year partnership with Google, TELUS is able to dive into all the phases of our customers’ journey ensuring it is easy for them to get the support they need,” Schultz said. “This allows our customers to more easily service themselves online, and our world class agents to have all of the information they need to provide quicker and easier support to our customers.”

AI solutions offer the exciting potential to transform the customer experience and bend the value curve for enterprises. Realizing this value requires thoughtful preparation, technology excellence, iterative progress, and a committed, aligned partnership. No company—whether an operator, cloud provider, or solution provider—can afford to let the sizable program investment become just another hype-cycle science experiment that fails to deliver business results.

Sean Allbee, Senior Principal, Customer Value and Transformation Advisory, Google Cloud

Sean works with telecommunications and media companies

Amol Phadke joined Google Cloud in June 2020 as managing director: global telecom industry solutions. He is responsible for working with the product and

Source: Does AI Have The Answer To The Customer Experience Riddle?

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