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The University of Southampton

Alexa the scientist: using Amazon Echo to make labs safer

Published: 7 June 2018
Alexa the scientist

Scientists at the University of Southampton are using automated echo technology to make the laboratories more efficient and safe for staff and students.

Building on the smart technology that has been in use in the Southampton labs for over 10 years (starting with work funded by the UK e-Science programme), staff are now able to record and recall information through Alexa and the Amazon’s Echo devices.

Scientists and students have already enabled unrelated computer systems to talk to one another securely in real time, through the Smart Lab project. Sensors gather data on various aspects of the lab such as temperature and power status and relay it to a 'message broker', which makes the data available via a smart phone or computer desktop.

Now thanks to the innovation of a team of early career researchers the Talk2Lab project has incorporated the Amazon’s Alexa, allowing it to access health and safety information and record information in real time, freeing up scientists to carry out impactful research.

Professor Jeremy Frey, Professor of Physical Chemistry at the University of Southampton, said: “This type of technology is already being used in the home so why not the lab? It is already making our teams more efficient and productive and I am very proud that it is being driven by our students.”

Talk2Lab has attracted international praise from US company Pistoia, after the Talk2Lab team, comprising Sami Kanza, Nicola Knight and Don Cruickshank, took part in a Hackathon event, organised by the research and development company, and won 2nd place.

The team used Alexa to link in with chemical health and safety data systems, containing information about a variety of substances and reactions. Their system operated through two methods allowing both retrieval of chemical safety data and reporting of reaction information. An Alexa skill was built which could retrieve multiple types of safety data as well as recording safety incidents. A more in-depth incident reporting system was also created through the use of an IoT (internet of things) button to trigger reports of different severity incidents and a web interface through which full incident and reaction reports could be submitted.

Sami said: “Health and safety data is crucial for scientific research, but we know that the information is not well shared or easily accessible. We are lucky to have a diverse set of skills within the team to be able to devise and implement the system and we are very pleased to see how well it is improving reporting and information retrieval in the labs.”

Pistoia will be visiting the University of Southampton to see Talk2Lab in action next month.

The team hope to develop the system even further to enable it to deal with different accents and show the information retrieved by Alexa on screen.

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