At Digital Scribbler we are always look for new opportunities to use technology to help those with special needs overcome their limits. We are inspired about technology and passionate about helping people. Russ Ewell has fostered a culture of innovation in the company by encouraging us to try new ideas and push the envelope of what we can accomplish.
Chatbots have been in the news and are being used in many different applications from technical support to teaching new languages. We have been looking at this technology for the last few years and believe there is great potential with them.
We started using chatbots at the Google-sponsored Bay Area Makeathon back in 2015. Over the weekend, our team built a working conversation prediction engine which integrated with Google Glass and had a chatbot as its foundation. Since this was before the new surge of chatbot platforms, we relied on Artificial Intelligence Markup Language (AIML). I still remember the joy of seeing our client for the event use the working prototype for the first time. He had Cerebral Palsy and difficulty moving most of his body. He turned and nodded his head wearing the Google Glass to choose the phrase he wanted and his phone spoke. By Sunday, we were able to converse in a simple conversation with him.
Last year we chose another adventure using chatbots that we believe can help teach those who use AAC how to carry on conversations with confidence. Some customers of ours have reached out asking for ways we can facilitate users getting more practice in conversation.
One user has responses and questions that he has been working on for different social interactions that are personalized for him (i.e. What are your hobbies?, What is your favorite sport?, etc). His goal is to practice typing and speaking so he can grow to be more and more independent. He has been using Quick Talk and Quick Type consistently for years now. And the more he practices, the faster he gets.
Some users have aides who ask questions with the goal of teaching communication and socialization. The challenge can be the limits of the aide’s availability as well as the time it can take for someone to build their confidence in conversation. We set out to find an alternative for those to practice using chatbot technology.
There are various platforms available to developers to build an application with a chatbot. For this project with we decided to go with Dialogflow because of its ease of use and quick release to both Google Home and Messenger platforms. Amazon Lex is also a good platform which we will be looking to use in the future.
The great thing about these chatbot platforms is that the chatbot can be used interchangeably with so many interfaces. Whether you prefer typing in Facebook Messenger or interacting with Alexa, Google Home, and now HomePod, no one is left behind.
For this user, we created a chatbot using his personal responses and questions. The chatbot knows how he wants to answer and corrects him when he needs help or repeats himself or the question. He has been using it for about six months and we have seen him grow. He can practice at home when he chooses and now is speaking and interacting more quickly and freely. There are times when it can become repetitive so we are working on adding more responses and questions. We have also learned to encourage practicing in different environments as well as using slight variations of the questions to avoid his responses becoming simple recitation of the answer.
This is just the beginning, but we envision this becoming a tool that AAC users can use to build confidence in starting new conversations and build new relationships. Imagine an app that has different social environments that one can choose (i.e. school, home, restaurant, on a date, etc) and learn to socialize. Just as social stories help individuals get ready for what is coming, this app could help individuals be ready for the conversations and friendships that are coming.