Voice assistant technologies have been available in the consumer market for a number of years. They can perform a variety of tasks, including reporting on the weather or traffic, locating destinations such as restaurants or shopping centers, and answering general questions at the user's request. Digital voice assistants can also act as the central point of communication between users and their connected devices.
These connected, or "smart" devices may include smartphones, laptop computers, televisions, speakers, wearable devices, and even car dashboards. The most common voice assistants in use today include Amazon's Alexa, Google Assistant, and Apple's Siri. These voice-activated products allow users to outsource simple interactions with their technological devices, thereby reducing screen time and enhancing the ability to multitask.
While the integration of voice assistants into daily tasks has become a growing trend in the consumer market over the past few years, this technology has yet to be implemented in laboratory environments. Despite this lag, voice-activated assistants, have tremendous potential to improve the quality and efficiency of scientific research and development (R&D). LabTwin has developed the first AI- and voice-powered digital lab assistant, which can bring the advantages of voice assistant technology to the laboratory.
To learn more about voice assistant technologies and their applications to the R&D laboratory environment, watch this free webinar.
Magdalena Paluch, co-founder and CEO of LabTwin, describes a voice assistant operating in an R&D space as having many parallels to an in-car voice assistant. In the past, map directions were commonly printed on paper before the introduction of Google Maps, and scientists similarly use paper-printed protocols to navigate through the steps of their experiments.
A virtual assistant would eliminate the need to print paper protocols, and other vital experiment information, such as safety information (WHMIS) or Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs). These can be made easily accessible through the voice assistant, leaving the scientist's hands free to work with their laboratory equipment and maintain a sterile environment, similar to the way that an in-car voice assistant allows the driver to keep their hands on the wheel of the car and their eyes on the road.
Popular Use Cases of Voice Assistants in Research and Development Laboratories
There are a number of ways that voice assistants can enable scientists to be more efficient and effective in the execution of their laboratory work. A voice assistant can be an excellent tool for improving quality control. By easily recording detailed information on the actions taken and the reagents used during an experiment, voice assistants make it simpler to retrace the steps of an experiment and investigate any deviations in outcome or product quality.
A digital voice assistant can also improve the efficiency and productivity of laboratory work by eliminating the need to print protocols or SOPs on paper. Scientists no longer have to carry paper information to different workstations or take their eyes off their current task to spend time looking through printed pages.
Voice assistants can also prompt scientists to follow safety precautions or sterile procedures without interrupting their workflow. This feature of digital voice assistants will greatly benefit quality control (QC) laboratories, as QC protocols require scientists to frequently stop experiments to fill in forms, sometimes even having to remove gloves, which is very time-consuming. Voice assistants would eliminate this need for frequent interruptions to experiment workflow.
Voice assistants can also connect to a database of information relating to laboratory materials, such as reagents and samples.
"Scientists will be able to ask the virtual assistant where to find what they need, rather than spending time searching through the laboratory,” says Mathias Freundel, group leader at Fraunhofer IPA, an R&D company serving the manufacturing industry.
This is yet another case where voice assistant technology can vastly improve efficiency in the laboratory.
Integration of Digital Voice Assistants into Pharmaceutical Research and Development
Facilitated Experiment Workflow
In addition to guiding scientists through the steps of an experimental protocol, a voice assistant could also make quick calculations, for example when preparing a buffer, further increasing the efficiency of an experiment. Voice technology can also improve inventory management, by helping locate materials and reagents for an experiment without interrupting workflow. A digital voice assistant may even be used to check laboratory inventory and order more materials when they are out of stock.
Laboratory Equipment Connectivity
Another way that voice assistants can improve workflow is by connecting to other laboratory devices: ensuring that they are turned on, in good working order and unoccupied before beginning an experiment. As people get more from technology in their homes and daily lives, they begin to expect similar experiences in their workplaces, and a laboratory has especially high potential for improvement with the integration of voice assistant technology.
Overcoming the Challenges of Adopting Voice Assistants
There are several challenges inherent in adopting voice assistants in the laboratory environment. The technology requires new skills and competencies, and a time investment is necessary for training new users. The development of a robust change management program within the organization will keep any transition to a new workflow as smooth as possible, so as to minimize disruptions to productivity.
LabTwin supports customers with change management programs, from recruiting early adopters to developing demonstration labs, so that new users can experience the tools before purchase. Another challenge to adopting voice assistant technology is that customers tend to have high expectations of products labelled "smart," or "artificially intelligent," and may depend on the technology to a degree that exceeds its capabilities. This can be addressed by setting realistic expectations of the technology early on in the implementation process, and by educating consumers on technological limitations.
Data security is also a major concern when adopting voice assistant technology, given the scope of its access to laboratory devices and data, some of which will be of a sensitive or confidential nature. Data security can be ensured with encryption, as well as regular penetration tests. Paluch assures customers that these are all strategies implemented by LabTwin's digital voice assistant product.
The company regularly scans their infrastructure for a wide variety of vulnerabilities, uses virtual private clouds to shield their critical systems, and makes fixing critical issues one of their top priorities. They are also transparent with customers about the data journey through their systems.
Customization and Machine Learning
The ability of voice assistant technology to adapt to different laboratory environments facilitates its implementation. New scientific terms are continuously being integrated into a scientist's vocabulary as their field progresses, and different research fields have different terminologies and language conventions. This is addressed by the LabTwin voice assistant product through its customization capabilities. Users can add terms and specify context according to their preferences.
The Future of Digital Voice Assistants in Pharma R&D
Digital voice assistant technology is currently in its early stages, and will continue to improve as the user base grows, allowing machine learning algorithms to become “smarter” by learning more specific scientific terms. By offering digital voice assistants to scientists, the technology is now shifting from a general assistant — resembling the consumer models that are currently on the market, such as Alexa or Google Home — to a more specialized assistant for scientists that is truly customized to individual user and lab workflows. This will have a major impact on the efficiency and productivity of all laboratories.
To hear more about the opportunities and challenges of digital voice assistants in R&D, check out this free webinar.