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How Alexa and Google Assistant can do a better job talking about coronavirus

Though Alexa and Google Assistant can answer some questions related to the COVID-19 coronavirus, both AI assistants are currently incapable of delivering responses to many common questions from Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO). Both assistants failed to correct a number of falsehoods or unknowns related to the spread of coronavirus, like if hot weather kills coronavirus, or that you don’t have coronavirus if you can hold your breath for 10 seconds.

Fear, testing of drugs like hydroxychloroquine, and intentional spread of misinformation by state actors like Russia makes serving up accurate answers to common questions an essential part of a global fight against a novel disease that could kill millions of people.

Our analysis is a combination of dozens of frequently asked questions as shared by World Health Organization (WHO), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and Johns Hopkins University. Questions also included myths according to CDC and WHO, as well as trending topics this week in social media and news.

‘Should I take a COVID-19 test?’

When I asked “Where can I get tested for COVID-19?,” Alexa shared local business listings; Google Assistant said, “Sorry, I’m not sure how to help.” When I asked Alexa, “Should I take a COVID-19 test?,” it recommended a voice app called Egg Test that helps you understand whether eggs in your refrigerator are still fresh. Testing by Vox triggered different results about a week ago.

Perhaps it’s unfair to expect Alexa and Google Assistant to have answers those questions given that there’s an apparent lack of test availability or coordination that’s prevented many Americans who were showing symptoms to get tested. But as testing ramps up in the weeks ahead, being able to direct people to local resources will be much more important.

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Matters of public health might be too important to be handled by an AI assistant, but it’s easy to imagine Google Assistant sharing a link to Alphabet’s Verily screener and triage algorithm for helping people understand who public health officials recommend get a test and where to get one if needed. Microsoft is also working with the CDC to create a coronavirus bot that could be extended through an Alexa-Cortana partnership.

Testing is considered one of the most effective ways to find and isolate people with the novel coronavirus, reducing community spread, saving lives, and allowing some semblance of life to go back to normal.

Confident that coronavirus can no longer be contained, on Saturday, public health officials in U.S. states hardest hit by coronavirus, like California and New York, said they’re now limiting tests to health officials and people that are hospitalized. Public health officials in countries like Finland argued for the same.

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said this week that the testing and tracing strategy proven successful for nations like Singapore and Iceland “must be the backbone of the response in every country.”

Although Alexa and Google Assistant have room for improvement, that’s not to say that they don’t have some valid, competent responses to coronavirus-related questions. At best, AI assistants deliver information about the novel disease alongside tips and best practices for things like social distancing — which is a new concept for all of us.

When asked, “How can I avoid getting the coronavirus?”, both assistants responded by citing WHO and CDC advice to wash your hands for 20 seconds, avoid contact with sick people, cleaning frequently touched items, and social distancing.

Both responded with helpful information to the question, “Do I have the coronavirus?.” And both responded accurately to some forms of the question, “How do I protect myself from COVID-19?” Both shared coronavirus symptoms — dry cough, fever, and difficulty breathing.

Alexa can even suggest coronavirus questions. Ask Alexa, “What’s the difference between coronavirus and COVID-19?,” and after providing an elaborate response that details the day Chinese researchers identified COVID-19 as a novel coronavirus strain, you’ll receive a suggested follow-up question: “What’s the importance of social distancing?” Alexa can also suggest coronavirus follow-up questions like “Alexa, what’s the fatality rate of the coronavirus?” or “Alexa, where is the coronavirus?”

At worst, answers are unrelated, or just produce an answer like “Sorry, I don’t know.”

The AI assistants do capably answer some important common questions, but coronavirus may be one of the biggest Google Trends in search history. As a phenomena that’s all at once threatening lives and shaping public health, business, global supply chains, job availability, and personal relationships, it’s a source of a lot of questions, and since smart speakers are in at least 25% of U.S. households, they can play a role in fighting the virus.

AI assistants like Google Assistant, Alexa, and Baudi’s Duer should arguably become the best in the world at answering common questions about coronavirus — not to replace the expertise of a healthcare professional, but to help people quickly triage or understand the rules related to social distancing and shelter-in-place.

Fallout from coronavirus is just starting, and according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate, it may continue in waves for at least the next 18 months. Public health experts like the CDC expect a majority of people to get coronavirus at some point, so being able to answer these questions will be important for a lot of people going forward.

Skills and sources

Google Assistant relies almost entirely on the World Health Organization, while Alexa cites a broad range of sources, from Reuters for the global number of deaths, pitt.edu for “How long can coronavirus live on a surface?”, thenest.com for “What household cleaners kill coronavirus?”, and Wikipedia for “Is coronavirus an airborne disease” and “Can COVID-19 hurt my baby?”

Alexa also routed questions to Alexa skills, with mixed results. The WedMD Alexa skill tried and failed to answer a question about the effectiveness of ibuprofen against coronavirus, while WikiHow gave a lengthy, accurate response to “How can I protect my family from coronavirus?”

When I asked Alexa, “Is pregnancy a pre-existing condition for coronavirus?,” Alexa opened the 4AFart Alexa skill that asked “Who fired the stink torpedo?,” and farted. So instead of getting a response to my question, I got a fart. That made me chuckle at first, but answering that question accurately is really important for a lot of women and families right now. Two other Echo speaker owners asked the same question and got the response, “Sorry, I’m not sure.”

Following questions about whether Amazon fact-checks coronavirus-related voice apps, this week Amazon and Google removed coronavirus voice apps from their platforms, according to voicebot.ai.

Alexa Answers may also give a window into the kinds of questions that are on the minds of Alexa users, but we couldn’t find any unanswered coronavirus on the crowdsourced question-answering website run by Amazon. VentureBeat staff writer Kyle Wiggers visited the Alexa Answers website last week and found coronavirus-related questions, but none appear at time of publication.

Other common questions no doubt appear in Google Assistant and search data, as well as Alexa query data or Amazon’s crowdsourced Alexa Answers.

In response to VentureBeat questions, Amazon said it is limiting third-party skill responses about COVID-19 at this time, and limiting crowdsourced coronavirus Q&A found on the Alexa Answers website.

Shelter-in-place, social distancing, and quarantine

Given border closures and restrictions on movement throughout many parts of the world in the past week and questions percolating about a national quarantine, our analysis also included questions about quarantine, shelter in place, and social distancing.

At this time, Google Assistant and Alexa are unable to respond to questions about self-quarantine or what to do when you’re told you must shelter in place. When I asked Google Assistant about shelter in place orders, for example, it shared listings for local homeless shelters.

When asked “What are the rules for the shelter in place order in Alameda County?,” Google Assistant did deliver a summarized response with information from the Alameda County Public Health Department. The response gives advice to reduce time around others when outside the home, avoid groups, and stay at least six feet from other people, but it doesn’t tell you to stay home.

Local or location-specific responses would also be extremely helpful, as state and regional governments place restrictions on free movement with varying names like shelter in place, lockdown, federal major disasters, each with different rules.

Myths

The two most popular AI assistants with smart speakers in the U.S. deliver mixed results when responding to questions about common myths surrounding coronavirus.

Ask Alexa, for example, whether hot weather kills the coronavirus, and you’ll get a weather forecast. But ask Google Assistant if ibuprofen works against coronavirus, and it says there is no known medical cure and that the WHO suggests you seek medical care if you develop a fever, cough, and difficulty breathing.

In some instances, Alexa could respond to more coronavirus-related questions, but the response could fall short of answering the stated question.

For example, ask “Alexa, what should I do if I have coronavirus?” and the response is “While a vaccine is currently not available, clinical trials are under way for viable treatments. The CDC recommends avoiding non-essential travel to China and South Korea and to take preventive actions. These actions include washing hands, limiting touching the face, avoiding contact with those who are sick, remaining at home when sick, covering coughs or sneezes with a tissue, and disinfecting items frequently touched.”

Neither assistant gives helpful responses to questions about face masks, though Alexa does urge people to wear a face mask when sick per CDC guidelines if asked if garlic prevents coronavirus infection. Sharing accurate information about face masks can be a powerful part of the fight against coronavirus. Health professionals across the United States are seeing face mask shortages so dire that the CDC has instructed them to use bandanas, or reuse masks even after coming into contact with someone with coronavirus. A hospital in Washington recently started the “100 million mask challenge” to recruit volunteers to address the national shortage. When people go out and buy personal protective equipment like face masks, they potentially take them away from health professionals who need them. The CDC doesn’t advise people to use face masks unless they have COVID-19 or are caring for someone with COVID-19, and when improperly used, they can lead to more spreading of the disease.

There seem to be many myths where AI assistants say “Sorry, I don’t know that” when they could respond as Alexa did when asked if mosquitoes carry coronavirus and say “No, that’s not true.” More drug-related myths may emerge as early stage tests like vaccine trials, and early drug tests continue to take place.

Earlier this week, a consortium including Microsoft Research, the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, the National Institutes of Health, and White House CTO Michael Kratsios open sourced a trove of nearly 30,000 scholarly research articles on coronavirus family viruses. They want medical researchers to use it, but also NLP researchers so they can help other scientists mine or summarize text, or create knowledgeable question-answering bots.

Alexa and Google Assistant may be different compared to AI helping scientists find a cure, but they can be there to dispel rumors or offer guidance on best practices.

Tech companies like Google and Amazon deserve credit for delivering answers to some burning questions people have about coronavirus. It’s good that Google.com is sharing hand washing tips, that Google search results display a COVID-19 alert with common questions, and that Google Assistant and Alexa cite WHO and CDC sources, respectively.

But each “Sorry, I didn’t understand” for a coronavirus-related question posed to an AI assistant should be considered a missed opportunity.

If coronavirus danger is expected to come in waves over the course of at least 18 months, being able to anticipate and respond accurately to the most common coronavirus questions people have gives Google Assistant and Alexa an opportunity to play a positive role in equipping people with the knowledge necessary to keep themselves and their loved ones safe and prevent the worst.

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