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Survey Highlights Voice Assistant Issues With Medical Questions

March 14, 2016 - Written By David Steele

For many people, the smartphone is the first thing reached for to find something that requires going online. It could be the address of a florist to arrange flowers for loved ones, the number of a nearby Cheesecake Factory or perhaps last week’s winning lottery numbers. In recent years, we’ve seen the major device platforms come with an integrated voice assistant. Apple has Siri, Google uses Google Now, Windows Phone has Cortana and Samsung use their own product called S Voice. Each of these systems relies on cloud computing and has been steadily improved since launch. And each system is designed to the first port of call for information requests. These voice assistants are designed to handle all manner of query but their level of sophistication varies depending on what is being asked of them. The industry is yet to reach the point whereby customers are able to say to their smartphone, “Hey Google, invite the usual crowd around tonight and fix me up with some pizza.” Digital voice assistants are getting better to the Star Trek ideal that Google’s founders are aiming for, and as part of this there are a number of independent tests being performed around the world to measure how effective our electronic systems are getting.

The most recent news now circulated around the results of a recent study into a limited number of smartphones and their respective voice activated personal assistants. During the experiment, the smartphones were each asked nine questions with three about mental health issues, three about physical health and a further three about interpersonal violence. The researchers only had access to a limited number of devices – twenty seven iPhones, thirty one devices with Google Now, nine with S Voice and ten with Microsoft’s Cortana. When it comes to medical emergencies, the smartphone is usually in a great position to help – because many people keep it with them all of the time. Unfortunately, as an overall rule of thumb it seems smartphones are not that brilliant at recognizing when we may need urgent medical attention, but there are glimmers of hope. For example, Siri or Google are better at identifying crisis-level mental health questions, which can prompt the device to display a local hotlines for the condition asked about. S Voice and Cortana process the result as part of an ordinary web search. The devices are less efficient at identifying other kinds of calls for help though: where the researchers were looking for a local hotline telephone number, most devices processed these sorts of queries as normal web searches. Siri tended to do better by providing the customer with contact information of local medical facilities or even referring the user to the emergency services should the condition be life threatening. Unfortunately, some of the services are less intelligent – telling S Voice that your head hurts get the response, “it’s on your shoulders” whereas Siri referred the user to nearby medical facilities, and Cortana and Google Now performed regular web searches.

Given how many are reliant on their smartphones, the number of systems that fail to recognize potentially life threatening conditions is disappointing. Senior study author Dr. Eleni Linos from the University of California said in a statement: “All media, including these voice agents on smartphones, should provide these hotlines so we can help people in need at exactly the right time – i.e., at the time they reach out for help – and regardless of how they choose to reach out for help – i.e. even if they do so using Siri.”