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AI boosts speech and language capability

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An app which uses AI to enable stroke survivors to rebuild their speech and language capability at home has been launched, inspired by the personal experience of its creator. 

SpeechFirst supports survivors to build on their speech and language therapy provision through using AI to detect incorrect facial movements and pronunciation and provide real-time tips and recommendations to enable them to make progress.

The app is the first British built creation to make use of AI in speech and language therapy, and with its launch is set to increase the rehab potential of thousands of survivors nationally. Its home-based approach enabling people to continue their rehabilitation remotely, while supervised by their therapist who can access the person’s SpeechFirst dashboard. 

Its creator, Holly Brown, was inspired to develop SpeechFirst by the experiences of her father, who had a stroke aged only 43 which left him with serious communication difficulties. 

“He was in a rehab centre for a little while and had the standard six-week therapy from the NHS, but then was left to his own devices. It’s a postcode lottery depending on where a person lives and what is available, and private speech therapy can be quite expensive,” says Holly. 

“We were well aware of the resource restraints so we looked for whatever was available. There were a few apps out there but they were quite expensive, but for people like my dad they were badly needed.” 

Holly, a consultant at digital leader Capgemini, developed the idea for SpeechFirst and pitched it to her employer as part of its Tech4Positive Futures campaign, which sought ideas to help address society’s biggest issues through technology-led solutions. 

SpeechFirst was named as one of three global winners and was given the funding and resources by Capgemini to bring the project to fruition during an intensive ten-week programme, with support from UCL and the guidance of Professor Rosemary Varley. A further round of funding will bring an additional six weeks of development. 

“We initially chose to specialise in articulation of consonants, consonant pairs and sounds, words and phrases, but the next round of funding will enable us to personalise those words and phrases,” says Holly. 

“We want to enable people to do things like being able to say their wife’s name or their children’s names again, and through using the app and getting the feedback, they can work towards that.” 

The app, which was conceptualised before the pandemic, has taken on increased relevance and importance since lockdown came and therapy has often been postponed or cancelled during the past year, with the impact on resources continuing to be felt. 

“The final round of pitching was in June last year, and at that time we were aware of many people not even getting six week of speech and language therapy, they were maybe getting two at a push, so we hope this will help,” says Holly. 

“This is designed to be done alongside their speech and language therapy, the therapist has access to the back end dashboard, so even if that allows them to stagger sessions more, knowing the person can progress between them, that will help. 

“Longer term, we would like to look at it being a standalone app, perhaps something a carer or family member could have access to, and it would also be great to see if this could go beyond stroke and benefit people with Parkinson’s, other neurological conditions, even autistic children who could use it in schools.”

While the app is available, its route to wider market is set to be some way off due to the extensive regulation that surrounds such innovation. 

“I think one of the biggest challenges is that regulation hasn’t caught up with the technology,” says Holly. 

“With AI, it’s such a constantly adapting field that the regulation just isn’t keeping up, that’s maybe why innovation is lacking. 

“But the ambition remains to get it out there as far and wide as we can, and to keep testing it as widely as we can. We working with a number of speech and language therapists and always welcome feedback.” 

And for app’s inspiration, Holly’s father, SpeechFirst has thankfully passed the test. 

“He feels like a bit of a superstar,” laughs Holly. 

“He’s been testing it out for us and has been involved in everything, from the illustrations testing through to the marketing materials. 

“Even now, he’s still so motivated to keep progressing, he uses a lot of paper-based books, dictionaries, and he’s willing to try anything new. We hope SpeechFirst will benefit people like my dad, but so many others too.” 

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