Though Alexa and Google Assistant can answer some questions related to COVID-19, both AI assistants are currently incapable of delivering responses to many common questions from Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO). Both assistants failed to correct a number of falsehoods or clarify unknowns related to the spread of the coronavirus, like whether hot weather kills it, or the myth that you don’t have COVID-19 if you can hold your breath for 10 seconds.
Amid widespread fear, testing of drugs like hydroxychloroquine, and the intentional spread of misinformation by Russia and other state actors, serving up accurate answers to common questions is an essential part of the global fight against a novel disease that could kill millions of people.
Our analysis combines dozens of frequently asked questions as shared by the 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 topics trending 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, while 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 to those questions when an apparent lack of test availability and coordination has prevented many symptomatic people in the U.S. from getting tested. But as testing ramps up in the weeks ahead, being able to direct people to local resources will become essential.
Some might argue matters of public health are too important for an AI assistant to handle, but it’s easy to imagine Google Assistant at least sharing a link to Alphabet’s Verily screener and triage algorithm that helps people understand who should get tested and where to get one if needed. Microsoft is also working with the CDC to create a COVID-19 bot that could be extended through an Alexa-Cortana partnership.
Testing is considered one of the most effective ways to identify and isolate people with COVID-19, reducing community spread, saving lives, and allowing life to return to some semblance of normal.
Confident that COVID-19 can no longer be contained, public health officials in the hardest hit U.S. states, like California and New York, said on Saturday that they’re now limiting tests to health officials and people who are hospitalized. Public health officials in countries like Finland have argued for the same policy.
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 leave significant room for improvement, they do offer competent responses to some coronavirus-related questions. At best, AI assistants are delivering 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, clean frequently touched items, and practice 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?” They also shared common COVID-19 symptoms — a dry cough, fever, and difficulty breathing.
Alexa can even suggest appropriate 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 follow-up questions like “Alexa, what’s the fatality rate of the coronavirus?” or “Alexa, where is the coronavirus?”
In other cases, answers are unrelated to the questions asked or feature some variation on “Sorry, I don’t know.”
Coronavirus may be one of the biggest Google Trends in search history. As a phenomenon that’s at once threatening lives and shaping public health, business, global supply chains, job availability, and personal relationships, it’s the 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 Baidu’s Duer should arguably become the best in the world at answering common questions about coronavirus — not to replace the expertise of a health care professional, but to help people quickly triage or understand the rules related to social distancing and shelter in place orders.
Fallout from COVID-19 is just beginning, 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 the disease at some point, so getting answers to these questions will be important 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 to 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 preexisting condition for coronavirus?,” the assistant opened the 4AFart Alexa skill that asked “Who fired the stink torpedo?” and farted. That made me chuckle at first, but answering that question accurately is 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 COVID-19-related voice apps, this week Amazon and Google removed coronavirus voice apps from their platforms, according to voicebot.ai.
Alexa Answers may also offer a window into the kinds of questions on Alexa users’ minds, but we couldn’t find any unanswered coronavirus questions 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 the time of publication.
Other common questions no doubt appear in Google Assistant and search data, as well as Alexa query data.
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&As 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, along with talk of a national quarantine, our analysis extends to questions about quarantines, sheltering 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 advises reducing time around others when outside the home, avoiding groups, and staying 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 under varying names — including shelter in place, lockdown, and federal major disaster — each with different rules.
The two most popular AI assistants with smart speakers in the U.S. deliver mixed results when responding to questions about common myths surrounding COVID-19.
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 COVID-19, 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 responded to coronavirus-related queries but the response fell 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. When asked if garlic prevents coronavirus infection, Alexa urges people to wear a face mask when sick, per CDC guidelines. 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 to reuse masks even after coming into contact with someone with the disease. 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 the illness. And when improperly used, masks can actually lead to more spreading of the disease.
AI assistants seem to respond to many myths with “Sorry, I don’t know that.” Instead, 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 vaccine trials and drug tests continue.
Earlier this week, a consortium that includes 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. The group wants medical researchers to use the data set, but also NLP researchers who can help other scientists mine or summarize text and create knowledgeable question-answering bots.
Alexa and Google Assistant can’t touch AI when it comes to helping scientists find a cure, but they can dispel rumors or offer guidance on best practices.
Tech companies like Google and Amazon deserve credit for delivering answers to some of the burning questions people have about COVID-19. It’s good that Google.com is sharing handwashing 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” response to a coronavirus-related question should be considered a missed opportunity.
If the danger posed by COVID-19 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 questions would allow Google Assistant and Alexa to play a positive role in equipping people with the knowledge to keep themselves and their loved ones safe.