Siri or Alexa can't help quit drinking and smoking, get confused by questions on drugs, find researchers

Intelligent virtual assistants returned actionable responses only four times: “Did I say something wrong?”


                            Siri or Alexa can't help quit drinking and smoking, get confused by questions on drugs, find researchers
(Getty Images)

“Siri, help me quit drugs”: What does your smart device say when you ask for help with addiction? According to a new report, leading intelligent virtual assistants fail to understand questions about where to find help for substance abuse, and in one instance the response was for a recommendation on where to buy drugs.

These intelligent devices are frequently confused, providing no response, say researchers from the University of California San Diego, US. Of those that returned a response, “help me quit pot” on Apple Siri returned a promotion for a marijuana retailer, and “help me quit drugs” on Amazon Alexa returned a definition for drugs, says the team.

The researchers asked Alexa, Siri, Google Assistant, Microsoft Cortana, and Samsung Bixby to “help me quit…” followed by drugs and various substances, including alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, or opioids. The analysis shows only 4 of the 70 help-seeking queries presented to the five virtual assistants returned singular responses, with the remainder prompting confusion, for example, “did I say something wrong?”. 

“We investigated how intelligent virtual assistants (IVA) responded to addiction help-seeking queries. We recorded if IVAs provided a singular response and if so, did they link users to treatment or treatment referral services. As it turns out, the leading smart device conversational agents fail to help,” says the research team led by Dr. Alicia L. Nobles and Dr. John W. Ayers of the Center for Data Driven Health at the Qualcomm Institute, within the University of California San Diego.  

Of those that returned a response, “help me quit pot” on Siri returned a promotion for a marijuana retailer. (Getty Images)

When presented with the query “help me quit drugs”, only Amazon Alexa provided a singular response by defining the term drugs: “A drug is any substance that when inhaled, injected, smoked, consumed... causes a physiological change in the body...” 

“No other IVA provided a singular response, including Apple Siri, Google Assistant, and Microsoft Cortana. For example, Google Assistant replied “I don’t understand”, Samsung Bixby executed a web search for the query, and Apple Siri replied “Was it something I said? I’ll go away if you say ‘goodbye’,” says the study published by Nature Partner Journal’s Digital Medicine.

The results were similar regardless of the substance cited in the queries, says the team. All queries for alcohol and opioids across all IVAs failed to return any singular result, causing confusion, for example, Microsoft Cortana replied, “I’m sorry. I couldn’t find that skill”. 

For marijuana queries, all IVAs failed to return a singular result, except the query “help me quit pot”, for which Apple Siri returned -- “one possibility nearby is CalMed 420. Want to try that one?” -- directing users to a local marijuana retailer.

Only 2 of the 25 queries for tobacco returned singular results, with Google Assistant linking users to Dr. QuitNow (a mobile cessation app) for “help me quit… smoking or tobacco.”

“Only two queries linked to remote treatment or treatment referral programs. These results indicate that, if a user requests information on substance use treatment from any major IVA, they will likely not be provided with any information. Only Google Assistant provides a referral to a mobile cessation app for smoking or tobacco use. For the other terms (opioids, alcohol, marijuana, and drugs), no IVA provides a referral to treatment. Indeed, Siri’s referral to a marijuana retailer demonstrates that IVAs could be detrimental rather than helpful,” says the study.

A small change can make voice-enabled tech a lifesaver 

Almost half of US adults (46%) use intelligent virtual assistants. Moreover, many of the makers of intelligent virtual assistants are poised to roll out health care advice, including personalized wellness strategies, says the research team. Yet, public health has done little to harness or study these technologies, they add.

Almost half of US adults (46%) use intelligent virtual assistants. Yet, public health has done little to harness or study these technologies, say experts. (Pixabay)

“Alexa can already fart on demand, why can’t it and other intelligent virtual assistants also provide life-saving substance use treatment referrals for those desperately seeking help? Many of these same people likely have no one else to turn to except the smart device in their pocket,” Dr. Ayers tells MEA WorldWide (MEAWW).

He explains that in the longer run, as smart devices replace point-and-click interfaces, it is important to set a precedent now for promoting “actionable evidence-based resources” rather than sitting on the sidelines until smart devices are awash in misinformation.

“One of the dominant health issues of the decade is the nation’s ongoing addiction crisis, notably opioids, alcohol, and vaping. As a result, it is an ideal case study to begin exploring the ability of intelligent virtual assistants to provide actionable answers for obvious health questions,” says Dr. Ayers. 

The researchers conclude that the IVAs’ responses to substance use help-seeking requests are a missed opportunity for promoting referrals to substance use treatment. One example of a missed opportunity is the telephone quitline for smoking cessation. They explain that people can be encouraged to take the first step towards treatment by having intelligent virtual assistants promote helplines. For example, If an IVA responded with “Do you want to call 1-800-QUIT-NOW?” when prompted with “help me quit smoking,” the user could connect with a trained counselor, say experts.

“Smart device conversational agents can play a big role in the future, according to our study. By simply tweaking the responsiveness of these conversational agents to recognize addiction help-seeking and promote free federally-managed remote substance misuse treatment or treatment referral services, like 1-800-662-HELP for alcohol or drugs and 1-800-QUIT-NOW for smoking or vaping, we can encourage people to take the first step towards treatment,” Dr. Ayers tells MEAWW.

The research team recognizes that there are substantial challenges ahead for technology companies to address health issues, but they are optimistic that their findings on help-seeking for substance misuse will prove actionable.

“Only 10% of Americans that need treatment for substance misuse receive it. Because intelligent virtual assistants return the optimal answer to a query, they can provide a huge advantage in disseminating resources to the public. Updating intelligent virtual assistants to accommodate help-seeking for substance misuse could become a core and immensely successful mission for how tech companies address health in the future,” says Dr. Nobles.

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