Chat Bots Help Texans Stop Smoking

Mar 21, 2017

What if your phone could help you quit smoking or lose weight? That’s the idea behind a new texting service created by San Antonio medical professionals and engineers. It's a new way to use your mobile device to improve your health.

A voice on a video says "quitting smoking is the best and most life-saving decision that you can make." That’s the greeting from a new automated messaging system called Quitxt, a program developed by UT Health San Antonio and University of Texas at San Antonio engineers to help smokers kick the habit.

  

"The chat bot is quite, let’s say, intelligent to talk to humans. It’s gradually evolving to become sort of human," said UTSA electrical and computer engineer David Akopian, Ph.D.

UTSA's David Akopian, Ph.D. (front) and students (left to right) Devasena Inupakutika, Chetan Basutkar and Sahak Kaghyan are working on mobile technology to improve human health.
Credit Wendy Rigby / Texas Public Radio

  

A chat bot is a computer program that conducts a conversation with you, in this case, by text on your phone. It’s not a real person on the other end. But questions and answers are programmed by health professionals.

The biggest challenge with chat bots, according to post-doctoral student Sahak Kaghyan, is setting up those multi-stage conversations that may go on for months at a time to help someone quit smoking.

"You need to be able to follow up the next question or the next answer," he said.

UTSA post-doctoral student Sahak Kaghyan is one of the people working on chat bot programs to promote healthy habits.
Credit Wendy Rigby / Texas Public Radio

  

Quitxt is bilingual, able to ask and answer in English or Spanish.

"We decided why not start with Spanish and later on maybe extend this to other languages: French, German, Russian," Kaghyan added.

It’s a health tool many younger people will embrace, according to engineering doctoral student Devasena Inupakutika. "It’s a cool technology," she commented. "Young people usually go for cool things which are very fast and immediately they’ll get the results."

While the chat bot to help smokers quit is up and running, engineers are working on other health applications for this technology, like one specifically for breast cancer patients. The program answers questions like a virtual nurse.

"If they’re having some issues, instead of going all the way to the clinic or hospital, they can just open up their app and then see if that can help them," explained masters student Chetan Basutkar.

This is the official logo of the Quitxt program.
Credit University of Texas at San Antonio

  

This project was funded by the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, part of three billion dollars Texas voters approved in 2007.

Akopian says so far, more than 2000 people have signed up for Quitxt at no cost. "It is free and we are planning to keep it that way," he stated.

The professor believes thousands of Texas’ three million smokers could quit, by using this guided communication. To enroll, all you have to do is text 'Iquit' to 57682.