UTSA professor creates chat-bots to promote healthy living

Top-tier research project encourages healthier living through online communication.

The chat-bot sends encouraging videos, helpful facts and uplifting tools for quitting smoking and living a healthier life.

(March 13, 2017) -- David Akopian, professor of electrical and computer engineering at The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA), and his team of talented students have created a series of automated messaging systems that can simulate human conversation, known as "chat-bots," with the intention of promoting smoking cessation and healthier living.

It's estimated that cigarette smoking kills 480,000 American every year, with smoking-related illnesses costing Americans more than $300 billion a year. Akopian believes the chat-bots could aid thousands of smokers all over Texas quit smoking through guided communications.

"We're taking out the middleman," Akopian said. "Someone might pick up a pamphlet about smoking cessation or some other form of literature, but why give them the chance to just set it aside? This way, you're learning and getting answers and encouragement through conversation."

Akopian worked in collaboration with health promotion researchers at UT Health San Antonio, the University of Texas at Austin, the YMCA and Kansas University to tailor messaging solutions for supporting healthy living.

One of his recent systems utilizes the automated smoking cessation protocol Quitxt, which was developed at UT Health San Antonio. The chat bot is interactive and is able to engage in realistic conversations with people who are considering or who are in the process of quitting smoking. It provides support, tips, educational messages, music and video links to help smokers quit.

Akopian is especially proud that the chat-bot is bilingual. It speaks English and Spanish, with the ability to expand into other languages. The project began gaining momentum after chat-bots were widely praised as being a leap forward in technology in several publications in 2016.

"We're now able to operate over various messaging channels including plain texting and instant messaging channels similar to Facebook or WhatsApp messengers," he said.

The expanded platforms make it possible for Akopian and his collaborators to communicate with people in several ways. They've even started integrating their solutions with Google and other popular environments to create even more avenues for people to use their chat-bots.

Answering the call for solutions to Texas's obesity and diabetes epidemics, Akopian is working with his partners to develop the chat-bots to advise people to live longer lives through exercise and healthier eating choices.

"The first step is always communication," he said. "From there, I know we can make a difference."

UTSA is ranked among the top 400 universities in the world and among the top 100 in the nation, according to Times Higher Education.

- Joanna Carver


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