• February 8th, 2020

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A new study published by NPJ Digital Medicine discovers that leading smart voice assistants currently fail to accommodate help-seeking for substance misuse, but believes they can play a meaningful role in the future.

How do voice assistants respond to queries?

Voice assistants are transforming how you look for information: they provide a singular response to query, like when you speak to a real person. That's different from what traditional search engines get you used to: they deliver several relevant results to a query, relying on you to consolidate them and reach your own conclusion. For example, querying "what's the weather?" on a search engine would result in a long-list of links from different weather services, while a voice assistant is designed to return a singular result, namely the real time local forecast.

Can voice assistants support addiction help-seeking queries?

A new study, published in the journal NPJ Digital Medicine by researcher from the Center for Data Driven Health at the Qualcomm Institute, based out of the University of California (San Diego, USA) investigated how voice assistants like Amazon's Alexa, Apple's Siri, Google Assistant, Microsoft's Cortana, and Samsung's Bixby, responded to addiction help-seeking queries. Researchers recorded if voice assistants provided a singular response and if so, if they linked users to treatment or treatment referral services. Only 4 of the 70 help-seeking queries presented returned singular or actionable responses, while all the others generated confusion like "I don't understand", "Did I say something wrong?", "I'm sorry. I couldn't find that skill" and more. When asked "Help me quit drugs" some voice assistance responded with a definition for the word drugs, while when asked "Help me quit smoking" some returned the name of a cessation app or promoted a nearby retailer. These results show that, if a user requests information on substance use treatment from any major virtual assistant, they will likely not be provided with any information or referral to treatment.

Is there hope for a future health saving support of voice assistants?

Despite their findings, the researchers stated that voice assistants have the potential to provide meaningful help to people seeking help for addiction: "they should be revised to promote free, remote, government sponsored addiction services, this would benefit millions of users now and more to come as assistants displace existing information-seeking engines".

This would encourage people to take the first step towards treatment by having voice assistants promote, for example, helplines. Upgrading voice assistants to accommodate help-seeking for substance misuse could become a meaningful transformation for how tech companies approach health in the future.

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