Sentrics needed access to AI and machine learning expertise for help incorporating voice control capabilities into the functionality of its new Engage360 application, which gives touch-free communication capabilities to senior care facilities.Solutions Data, Artificial Intelligence & Machine Learning Platforms Amazon Web Services (AWS)
Using chatbot technology to improve seniors’ well-being during a global pandemic
Among many devastating outcomes, one of the challenges that COVID-19 revealed is the vulnerability of senior citizens living in assisted-living environments. Even in the best of times, they face the potential for diminished well-being in their physical, medical, social and behavioral needs within institutionalized settings.
Experience and research have proven that the biggest indicators of seniors thriving or declining are related to how much access they have to social activities, including interacting with friends, visiting with family members and engaging in a variety of community activities.
But in some living situations, seniors’ social options are minimal.
Technology can help improve their lives, especially if seniors have access to good technology, including WiFi, applications and devices. This gives them another way to connect with people and live vibrant lives. After providing seniors with an emergency calling technology for years, Sentrics saw the need for a broader application that could bring electronic capabilities into seniors’ lives and support their well-being on multiple levels.
The company conceived of an easy-to-use, all-in-one infotainment platform that seamlessly integrates multi-functional television, internet and chatbot technology. A key feature would be voice-controlled access, as many seniors are encumbered by physical restrictions.
The primary capability that Sentrics required to bring its innovative new application to life was voice-control capability. However, the company lacked that skill set. During development, COVID-19 hit and the need for the technology intensified, because seniors in assisted living facilities were becoming cut off from their communities and living in isolation.
That’s when Onica (a Rackspace Technology company) and a leading AWS Partner Network (APN) Premier Consulting Partner — entered the picture.
Senior living facilities were the first to feel the worst of the pandemic. To try and mitigate the contagious disease, many were put on lockdown. Resident apartments became quarantine zones. The only people many residents saw in-person were nurses, doctors and the staff members who brought them their meals. They could not socialize with family or friends or even walk the halls of their facilities. All social activities were suspended.
Their plight inspired Sentrics to accelerate the develop of the application it had been planning — an infotainment application created just for seniors, called Engage360. The company reached out to Onica to deliver the voice technology expertise it lacked. Onica was able to not only meet Sentrics tight six-week deadline, but also finish ahead of schedule and achieve additional goals.
“The impact of COVID-19 on senior living in assisted living facilities really opened our eyes to the dire need for residents to have an opportunity to virtually engage with others in their community,” said Cory Patterson, VP of Technology. “The pandemic was a worst-case scenario for seniors’ well-being. That inspired us to launch Engage360 as fast as humanly possible. We couldn’t have achieved that aggressive goal without Onica’s help.”
"Rackspace and our team were able to come together very quickly and get the foundation of our voice application done in a 90 day period of time. We would have never been able to do that without this partnership."
Onica introduces Sentrics to AWS Lex
Sentrics’ background includes delivering highspeed internet and WiFi services to seniors in care facilities, so they can stay active and engaged online. “It would likely surprise a lot of people to learn how engaged seniors are with technology today,” said Patterson.
“While they may be slow adopters, they are adopting and become savvy tech users,” Patterson added. “They are happy being able to watch what they want to watch on TV and staying connected to the world on the internet. To support them even beyond those capabilities, we conceived of an engagement platform they could access for a wide range of capabilities, from ordering food to finding out what activities were available in their communities on any given day.”
Originally, Sentrics had planned to create its new platform by installing Amazon Echos in each senior’s residence, connecting them to their televisions and programming a variety of functionality into the connection. But Onica suggested a different approach.
As an expert in Amazon Web Services, Onica knew that the AWS Lex was a service specifically designed for building conversational interfaces into any applications using voice and text. In fact, AWS Lex powers Amazon’s Alexa virtual assistant. Using the artificial intelligence service, Onica could customize chatbots for Sentrics to deliver the exact outcome it was aiming for.
"Rackspace's expertise in these tools helped us bring this technology to market in ways we didn't even know we could do."
Amazon services support rapid customization
AWS Lex and several other AWS services allowed the company to create a chatbot device that connected to seniors’ televisions where it could provide an array of functionality. For example, seniors could view a community menu of activities and know which of their friends was going to play bingo or a swimming class, when they could join the next community shopping trip and what the dinner options would be in the dining hall. And they could do it all with voice technology for greater ease and flexibility.
“AWS Lex was a revelation,” said Patterson. “It brought us the capabilities we needed in a much more streamlined format, plus added capabilities that we didn’t know we needed. For example, the architecture made it very easy for us to provide seniors with lists of television shows and movie titles they could view on their TVs. We didn’t know that technology existed before Onica introduced us to it.”
Other AWS technologies that supported the project were Amazon API Gateway, which is scalable and supports large data payloads, like audio. Amazon S3 provided storage for large audio files. Amazon CloudWatch Logs provided a single pane of glass for log views. AWS Lambda allowed the team to run code without administration. With AWS CodeCommit, the team could collaborate on code in a secure and highly scalable ecosystem. AWS CloudFormation supported automated deployment of the application.
“Onica really understands AWS technology. They’re experts on the technology,” said Patterson. “I’ve been using AWS for 15 years, but I’m still overwhelmed by just trying to keep up with the new technologies and services AWS is continually releasing. After our first conversation, it was abundantly clear that Onica was going to be our partner.”
Learning how to train AI chatbots
Central to Sentrics’ new application was voice technology. Because the application was for seniors, many of whom have mobility challenges, voice activation was the key to ensuring accessibility for all. However, this also added to the complexity of the solution, because adding voice-driven functionality requires specific expertise.
AWS Lex provides the power of chatbot technology, which is powered by conversational artificial intelligence and machine learning. Chatbots are commonly used in “Help” applications on websites and in physical devices, like Amazon Echo. They first use automatic speech recognition to convert the sound of a human voice into words, and then use natural language processing to interpret the words into an instruction.
A chatbot must be programmed to recognize the “intent” of an instruction, as well as when it should expect any relevant “values” to take action. For example, if a person says, “I’d like a table for two at six o’clock,” the intent is to make a restaurant reservation, and the values are “two people” and “six o’clock.”
While training Sentrics’ chatbot to recognize potential intents and values, the team found that entering a large number of similar potential instructions was not as valuable as identifying distinct instruction patterns. After a few key inputs, the machine learning component kicks in and begins to automatically make connections between intents and values as it learns to respond to a variety of voice commands.
Also, natural language processing is able to distinguish between concepts like today and tomorrow, correctly assigning the right date as the value for the instruction. This enables more natural conversation with the chatbot. The team was also able to leverage certain pre-existing value categories already developed by AWS, such as dates, numbers and even television channel names. This simplified instruction programming and accelerated development.
Racing to deliver to seniors in lockdown
In order to meet its intensified pandemic driven deadline and bring its Engage360 application to seniors as soon as possible so they could engage virtually, Sentrics divided its project development into four key stages. At the outset of the partnership, the company asked the Onica team to complete all of the phase one tasks and potentially some of phase two items — all within six weeks.
Very quickly Onica finished all phase one tasks and was making headway on phase two items. Before the six weeks were up, Onica finished all phase two and three tasks and most of phase four items. At the same time, the team also built the API and the chatbot that sat behind the API.
Helping keep the team on task was Onica’s own agile and scrum methodologies, innovative project management capabilities and engagement delivery framework. “Onica has a tremendous team, including developers, data scientists and a scrum master,” said Patterson. “They hit their deadlines and supplied us with accurate reports. The entire process was so stress-free. It was a continually affirming relationship.
Patterson added, “We were very impressed with their project management approach and engagement delivery framework. In fact, we’d like to adapt their processes into our own approach so we can gain more efficiency.”
The next step for Sentrics is to launch its current products in the senior marketplace and see what people say. “Then we’ll take that feedback and continue developing products and building connections between our products so they all work seamlessly together,” explained Patterson. “We also want to add functionality that improves seniors’ interaction with their family members, as well. We’ll definitely be looking to Onica’s expertise to help us find the best ways to build and enhance our products and make those connections.”
Onica not only met the tight six-week deadline, but also finished ahead of schedule and achieved additional goals.
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