“Say aaaaaaaah.” How many times did our family doctor ask us to say this during a medical examination, while they were listening to us with their stethoscope stuck on our backs? This is how a doctor can check our health. Or at least the health of the lungs based on the sounds coming from our chests. GPs can do away with that job now that artificial intelligence can be used as a diagnostic tool to process vocal sounds like talking or coughing.

Corona voice test

Every voice is unique. This is because the voice is influenced by the very nature of our organs, the way we use them, our brain activity and other distinctive features. Given that the voice has thousands of different parameters, information about each individual’s state of health can be gained from it.

Over the past few months, Giovanni Saggio, professor at the Department of Electronic Technology at the University of Tor Vergata in Rome, Italy, has developed a corona voice test. Patients from a number of Italian hospitals, including the Pavia Polyclinic (which treated Italy’s first corona patient in February), were asked to speak two short, set texts and cough three times. The recording was then processed by VoiceWise, a Tor Vergata university start-up that uses artificial intelligence to detect the coronavirus (and many other diseases) via voices.

The virus was detected in 30 people; two more than the molecular (PCR) test revealed.

We are talking about algorithms that are ‘trained’ to listen to the human voice in order to understand every nuance. And to find small but significant variations that are capable of indicating a precise clinical picture through the use of artificial intelligence.

The virus was detected in 30 people out of a group of 150 test subjects. That was two more than the molecular (PCR) test that the 150 men and women had already taken. As a check, the two concerned were subjected to a follow-up PCR test. Which subsequently showed that they were indeed infected. To put it mildly, the test results were clearly very positive. The Italian test has yet to go through the scientific mill (publication in a scientific journal, peer review) before Saggio’s COVID voice test can be launched on the market.

Only for patients with symptoms

Nevertheless, voice diagnosis should not be used as the only test method for diagnosing SARS-CoV-2, Saggio acknowledges. The voice test is only for patients presenting with symptoms of the coronavirus. According to the Italian Institute for Healthcare (ISS), the equivalent of the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM), 71% of the population infected with the coronavirus have very few symptoms or none at all. The voice test, on the other hand, is a good method for making an initial screening to sort out people with corona or the common flu.

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About the author

Author profile picture Ewout Kieckens is a Dutch journalist in Rome who writes about Italian lifestyle and culture. He has written books on diverse subjects such as the Vatican and Italian women. He is very interested in innovations, especially Italian contribution to progress.