This morning, when I asked my Amazon Echo smart speaker what the coronavirus is, Alexa’s response was correct: It told me that the virus had been identified late last year by researchers in China and that the outbreak had since been declared a pandemic. After reporting the number of documented cases worldwide, it proposed some follow-up questions I could ask, like, “Alexa, what’s the fatality rate of the coronavirus?” or the slightly less grim, “Alexa, where is the coronavirus?”
As the pandemic continues to spread around the world, and people try to understand how they should respond to it, more of them will turn to virtual assistants like Alexa to get information about the coronavirus. That’s pushed companies like Amazon and Google to tweak their various platforms to prevent misinformation and to ensure that accurate information from health authorities actually gets to users.
At this point, it seems like the companies have been aggressive in making sure their assistants are prioritizing official health sources and directing users to respectable news outlets, and both Google and Amazon appear to be reviewing coronavirus-related voice apps submitted by developers.
But there are limits to how helpful these tools can be to the one in four Americans who now use smart speakers, particularly people with visual impairments and some of the elderly, who can struggle to use mobile, screen-based devices and instead rely on voice assistants. The Covid-19 content these smart assistants are currently offering serves as a reminder that even in a crisis, these AI-powered tools often just quote information from news articles and government websites, and they don’t have any particular authority on their own. Sometimes, they don’t necessarily understand the questions we ask, and they can fail to provide context that another resource might have.
For example, when I asked Alexa how to get a test for the novel coronavirus, it suggested the CDC recommendation: Reach out to your state health department about the availability of testing, and contact your health care provider directly if you develop symptoms or if you’ve been exposed to someone who has it. But the advice was not perfect: When I asked if I should buy a face mask, Alexa just generally described the symptoms of the illness (and said nothing specifically about face masks). The CDC has urged healthy people to not buy masks because we’re at risk of a shortage, and they’re most needed by people who already have symptoms and by health care workers who might interact with people who are already infected with Covid-19.
Meanwhile, when I asked Apple’s Siri how to get tested for coronavirus, she suggested a few links — and one link was actually about MERS, which is a type of coronavirus but not the one we’re all worried about right now. Apple didn’t respond to a request for comment, but the websites Siri directs you to appear to be the same as the top results found in Safari (when searching on Google). Sometimes, it appears you’ll be explicitly directed to certain sites. For instance, if you ask Siri what are the symptoms of coronavirus, the voice assistant sends you directly to the CDC’s webpage about this.
Meanwhile, on Google Assistant, if you ask how to get tested for Covid-19, you’ll receive recent news articles about coronavirus testing. The results appear to come through some form of Google search. But if you ask the assistant about the symptoms of coronavirus, the AI directly recites to you what the World Health Organization says.
Beyond providing answers to voice-search inquiries, platforms like Alexa and Google Assistant have both had developers submit coronavirus-related voice apps (Google calls them “actions,” Amazon calls them “skills”). These are, essentially, extra “features” that users can elect to integrate into their assistants. Already, skills available to Alexa users include one that shares the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases and another that supposedly tells you how to clean your hands effectively. The BBC also says it’s now created coronavirus-specific smart speaker content as well, which appears to work on Alexa but not Google Assistant or Siri.
An Amazon spokesperson didn’t directly respond when Recode asked if the company fact-checks these skills. “Alexa skills are required to comply with our policies and content guidelines. We review skills prior to certification and routinely audit them,” the spokesperson said. Amazon’s developer policies say that skills are not allowed to include false or misleading claims about medicine, and health-related skills must include a disclaimer.
When Recode asked whether Amazon had already removed any coronavirus-related voice apps, the spokesperson said: “[W]e are re-evaluating all skills related to this topic and taking action as necessary.”
Meanwhile, Google has taken a more aggressive approach and is limiting coronavirus-related “actions” that voice app developers can submit to the Google Assistant platform. Several coronavirus-related “actions” appear have been taken down, and at least one voice app was rejected for the same reason, according to reporting from the website Voicebot.ai.
And if you search for “coronavirus” on the Google Assistant app’s action database now, nothing comes up. Search for “Covid-19,” and you’re directed to information from the WHO.
While a blog post from Google CEO Sundar Pichai about the company’s coronavirus efforts did not directly address Google Assistant, a Google spokesperson told Recode that when users ask about symptoms, treatments, and prevention related to the coronavirus, they’ll be directed to information from the WHO.
The company’s developer policies specify that it will take down “actions” that seek to capitalize on sensitive events, such as the Covid-19 pandemic.
Improvements to the voice platforms don’t mean everyone has always been happy with their offerings or that updates came soon enough. Back in January, one man was so frustrated when Alexa cited Wikipedia in response to his questions about the coronavirus that he decided to make his own informational podcast about the virus, according to the New Yorker.
All these updates are a reminder that amid a global crisis like this current pandemic, even our best smart assistant platforms need human intervention, whether that means taking down content or ensuring that only certain information — like guidance from health organizations — is shared.
And sure, most of this information is certainly just searchable from your computer, but voice assistants just might keep you from touching your phone, which — yes — could also be carrying Covid-19.
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