UniSA's AI coach independently improves health outcomes

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UniSA's AI coach independently improves health outcomes

Benchmark Awards 2020 finalist.

Everyone who embarked upon a health kick at the start of the new year will know that it’s harder to meet diet and exercise goals alone, and that a good health coach can be hard to find and expensive to keep.

That’s why researchers at the University of South Australia turned to virtual assistant technology to see if the technology could successfully deliver a healthcare program.

It took 12 weeks to train the virtual coach, Paola, using OutThought’s platform underpinned by IBM Watson Virtual Assistant technology to enable Paola to understand 70 topics and over 2000 phrases and nuances related to the health program devised by the researchers based on the a mix of exercise and the Mediterranean diet.

Paola was then tested during a 12 week study with 31 participants who were able to design tailored programs together with the virtual coach through natural language, rather than just a typical question and answer process.

Participants wore fitness trackers during the trial, through which Paola could analyse their activity and offer encouragement through a variety of digital channels.

And unlike human fitness coaches, Paola was available around the clock if participants had dietary questions while at the supermarket or out at dinner.

All participants in the trial lost weight with the help of the app, and performed an average 110 minutes of exercise per week. They also had significant ‘adherence to diet’ scores, indicating Paola helped them follow the diet plans better than if they’d attempted the health program by themselves.

Associate Professor Carol Maher said that Paola is different from other chatbots due to its independence.

“Chatbots are increasingly appearing in service industries, but in most cases, they can only answer a limited set of common questions and require human steps to complete the conversation,” she said

“Paola is different as she is not just a first-level response chatbot; she has the ability to learn and modify her responses, giving the potential to deliver an entire health program, without additional support from a dietitian or exercise professional.”

Work is already underway to explore how Paola can be expanded to support health initiatives in areas where access to diet and exercise coaching is limited to reduce Australia’s mounting healthcare spend.

This project was a finalist in the emerging technology and healthcare categories of the iTnews Benchmark Awards 2020.

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