When Amazon invented the Alexa speaker, they were looking for a way to seamlessly integrate their new technology in people’s homes. Alexa was supposed to be a gateway for people to buy further products from the company; people who bought the digital assistant might be tempted to buy further products for the home which could be powered by the device, such as lighting systems.
Further innovations allowed her to take control of televisions, eliminating the need for a remote control. Now, she’s started branching out into health care in the United Kingdom.
As of July 10th, Amazon has entered into a partnership with the UK’s National Health Service to provide answers to basic medical queries. At the time of launch, the assistance that the device is capable of providing is basic, but may be enhanced as time goes on.
The feature isn’t completely new – Alexa has been able to provide limited advice on how to deal with trivial issues such as headaches for some time – but the device now connects directly to the official NHS website to locate specific details regarding health conditions, and so can now provide more thorough information. Alexa will also make suggestions that customers should seek professional medical advice if the symptoms being described appear to be serious.
To access the new skill, all customers need to do is ask Alexa a direct question such as ‘Alexa, how do I treat a sprained ankle?’ to which the device will provide a detailed list of treatment options, as well as the prospects of further treatment being required, and the average recovery time. She’s also well versed on illnesses such as migraines, influenza, and chickenpox.
It’s hoped that allowing the device to provide information in this way may reduce the strain on existing NHS infrastructure, including the service’s non-emergency helpline, which has been criticized for failing to cope adequately with demand at busy times of the day. The NHS also believes that allowing Alexa to deal with basic inquiries will make NHS advice more accessible for people with serious disabilities, for example, those who would struggle to dial a telephone number or access the NHS website on a computer.
Although health service officers are hailing the new partnership as a welcome technological development, not everybody is pleased. Civil rights campaigners have raised concerns about possible breaches of data protection.
As all vocal commands given to Alexa are electronically stored, groups such as Big Brother Watch feel that there is now an increased risk of the private medical details of civilians falling into the wrong hands in the event of a cyber attack.
As the technology is currently at an early stage, there are also fears that the device could give incorrect advice, or that the advice provided by Alexa could lead to more people making unnecessary trips to see doctors instead of less, after being worried by information given to them by the machines.
The move is just one of several steps into the future being planned by the NHS for the years to come. Other measures currently at the testing stage include teaching artificial intelligence to analyse X-Rays, blood tests, and other scans in order to provide diagnostic assistance to doctors, and thereby reduce demands placed upon their time. Although the Amazon device is the first to feature information from the NHS, if the service proves to be popular the health service expects to roll out similar services to other digital assistants.
Although providing medical advice for humans is a new skill for Alexa, she’s been active in other areas of healthcare for some times. Through the MyPetDoc skill, you can present Alexa with a list of symptoms being presented by a household pet.
Alexa then asks further questions to clarify the situation, and if she can’t find a suitable answer, she’ll ask permission to forward a copy of your conversation to a local veterinarian, who will then contact you directly. As the technology has proven capable of providing such a service for dogs and cats, it would be logical to assume it will one day do the same for people.
Away from healthcare, the increasingly-common device has acquired a range of new skills in recent months which have seen it penetrate into even more areas of our lives.
An Alexa app provided by British bookmaker Paddy Power allows gamblers to receive daily tips on sports games and racing, as well as an invitation to place bets, meaning Alexa has now entered the world of casinos. She’s not currently able to play poker with you, or directly interface with online slots, but given the rate of technological progression, it seems likely that an online mobile slots website like Amigo Slots will eventually allow her to interface with their games and spin the reels without a button needing to be clicked.
Alexa can already cycle through the games available on an Xbox; picking through the latest and greatest slots and loading them up for players seems unlikely to be a chore.
She’s also proven to be helpful with those who want to order food with minimal effort; an app provided by Dominos pizza allows hungry users to order anything from a menu, or even repeat their most recent order, with a few basic voice commands. If you’d rather stay healthy, she can relay recipes for almost any cuisine from anywhere in the world.
The fact that she can also check your credit card balance, and the performance of any stocks and shares you may own, suggests that concerns about how she handles private data may have arrived too late in the day to reverse the general trend.
If it’s possible to save lives that would otherwise be lost by allowing the Alexa app to assess and diagnose medical problems – as well as recommending a patient seeks urgent medical attention in serious cases – then most people will probably feel that this new Alexa skill does more good than it does harm, and that the benefits outweigh the risks.
If there’s a serious data breach in the future, and people’s private conversations with Alexa become public knowledge, opinion is likely to change.
As we’re now several years into having devices like Alexa in our homes, though, and we’re yet to hear of the first incident of the systems being hacked, it’s to be hoped that security standards will continue to be maintained as the functionality of the devices becomes more advanced.