University of Queensland and CSIRO researchers have developed a chatbot that may hold the key to better speech therapy.

The chatbot, HARLIE (Human and Robot Language Interaction Experiment), is aimed at elderly people living with neurological conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease and dementia.

Leading engineer of the HARLIE project, Dr David Ireland said the difference between apps like Siri, Google Now and HARLIE is that “… (the former) behave more like personal assistants. HARLIE has been developed for more general language processing about a larger range of topics.”

“An additional component we have implemented is a memory mechanism, allowing the app to recall previous information told by the user and use that to drive the conversation forward,” Dr Ireland said.

He said the ability to collect voice samples and use this information to stimulate further conversation could be extremely beneficial for people who struggle with every day communication.

“Other health apps typically come up with one prompt for a task and then leave it at that or come up with a prompt for the next task,” neuroscientist and project collaborator Dr Tina Atay said.

“HARLIE can keep up a simple conversation and can collect clinically relevant information during a chat rather than ticking off a series of tasks without anything else.”

Therapist and quality of life researcher Dr Jacki Liddle said the app has a range of potential users, from “people who have anxiety with their communication, to using it to enable people to engage in their speech therapy tasks at home without the need for visiting a clinic everyday to receive the intense therapy needed to make a difference in their voice outcomes.”

She said a conversation is a lot more natural than other assessments and people can use the app home when things are not going well, instead of waiting for their next appointment.

While it’s hoped HARLIE will become a recognised form of speech therapy for those with neurological conditions, the developers have been trialling the technology within the general population.

“Rather than taking our ‘app under-development’ to people living with Parkinson’s disease and dementia, we have visited many local senior groups to learn how healthy older adults interact with HARLIE and what their tips for improvement are,” Dr Atay said.