This ad agency is using AI to help Alzheimer’s patients hold on to their memories
Launched four years ago, bAIgrapher is designed to slow the progress of the neurodegenerative disease. It will soon undergo clinical trials, after which point it could become widely available.
More than 6mn Americans are currently living with Alzheimer’s, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. / Adobe Stock.
Around 6.7 million Americans are currently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s – a disease which leads to cognitive decline and memory loss, among a range of other symptoms – according to data from the Alzheimer’s Association. Some 55 million people globally suffer from dementia, an umbrella term denoting neurodegenerative ailments in general, according to the World Health Organization.
While there are a number of therapies that can stave off the effects of Alzheimer’s, the disease itself remains incurable.
In 2019, an idea was hatched by a team of creatives at Area 23, an IPG Health-owned advertising agency which this year topped The Drum's World Creative Rankings: what if artificial intelligence could somehow be leveraged to help Alzheimer's patients retain their memories?
The application of AI in Alzheimer’s treatment is not new. In laboratories and universities around the world, researchers are working to crack the neurological mystery of the disease using the technology. But this particular ad agency, which specializes in the healthcare industry, was not focused on the development of new medical devices or interventions, but rather that sacred human habit that forms the core not only of marketing but also that of our institutions, our relationships and even our very sense of personal identity: storytelling.
Thus was born bAIgrapher, an AI model designed to turn an Alzheimer’s patient’s life story into an enduring artifact, a memory bank that can potentially slow the advance of the disease while providing comfort to those who remain behind once it has taken its toll.
The concept behind bAIgrapher is based on reminiscence therapy, a form of psychological treatment for patients struggling with brain injuries and cognitive decline, which seeks to preserve memories and improve overall brain function through the recollection of lived moments from the past. While it often takes the form of talk therapy, it can also have a multisensory approach; some assisted living facilities, for example, will cordon off sections that are crafted to have the look and feel of the 1940s or 50s, thereby theoretically sparking some memories among the residents.
A patient using bAIgrapher opens a link shared by a physician and responds to a series of questions about their life. That information (much of it recorded audio) is then collated and transcribed into a coherent narrative which can be shared as a physical book, a PDF or an MP3. It’s comparable to the process of somebody communicating their life story to a biographer; but where biographies are typically written for the very famous, influential or wealthy, bAIgrapher is available to just about everyone.
“All of us deserve a biography, but not all of us are Benjamin Franklin,” says Thiago Fernandes, creative director at Area 23. “That’s where AI comes in.”
In an online tutorial video, narrated by the voice of bAIgrapher itself (it sounds a bit like Don Draper), the model explains that its “neural network has been trained on over 400 biographies written by the greatest writers.”
Family members and friends of the patient also have a chance to contribute to the narrative, adding to its fullness and depth. But as Fernandes emphasizes, “the patient always gets the privilege of owning their story,” meaning that the parameters of the model are designed to prioritize the patient’s recollection of events over anyone else’s. (Good news, perhaps, for anyone with quarrelsome families.)
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In that respect, bAIgrapher “is a therapy not just for the patient, but also for the family,” adds Wid Souza, the agency’s senior vice-president and creative director.
bAIgrapher is a large language model (LLM), the same technology upon which the popular AI chatbot ChatGPT is based. Fernandes and Souza, however, don’t recommend that Alzheimer’s patients use ChatGPT to help them create a personal biography for the simple reason that ChatGPT has a tendency to “hallucinate,” a term of art which means to fabricate information that’s veiled as truth. The harmful implications of such an AI model being used by an Alzheimer’s patient or any “reality-challenged” person are obvious.
Fernandes and Souza prefer to call bAIgrapher a “large listening model” – an intelligent machine whose prime directive is simply to produce an output from a very specific set of inputs (namely, the patients’ and their families’ responses to predetermined questions), not to scour the far reaches of the internet to create “new” information. As Fernandes puts it: “It can’t make stuff up.”
Until now, bAIgrapher has only been used by a handful of patients. It will soon be deployed in a controlled clinical trial at the Universidade Federal de Ciências da Saúde de Porto Alegre (UFCSPA) in Brazil with 240 subjects. If successful, it could be rolled out across Brazil, and perhaps beyond. Fernandes and Souza, both of whom have lost a loved one to Alzheimer’s, believe that bAIgrapher could eventually grow to become a widely accepted and accessible form of treatment. “[The] potential impact is truly gigantic,” Fernandes says. “I can't hear my grandma’s voice again, but I'm proud to be working on something that may be able to give people their grandma’s voices, even after they’re gone.”
As the marketing industry and experts hailing from other fields continue to fret over the potential of AI to make certain forms of human creativity obsolete, Fernandes and Souza believe that bAIgrapher can point the way to an alternative and much brighter future. “There’s been a lot of discussion around AI replacing people and around AI being a threat,” Fernandes says. “But we feel that this is a way in which AI not only doesn’t replace people, but it [also] highlights how irreplaceable they are.”
Some fear that we’re handing over the keys to our minds to AI; Fernandes and Souza see hope in using AI to actually protect and preserve our minds.
The two marketers say that they have learned a lot since the project’s inception four years ago – not only about AI, but also about Alzheimer’s and the therapeutic process. They were surprised to learn, for example, that many patients who have tried bAIgrapher reported that the process of telling their stories was at least as helpful as reading or hearing them after the AI model had produced the finished product. They both also speak glowingly about the many people and companies who have contributed to bringing bAIgrapher to life. Though the project is overtly altruistic, one gets the impression that Fernandes and Souza are also personally benefiting.
“This is a kind of therapy for us,” Souza says with a laugh.
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