Can Alexa save your life? U of A researchers put virtual assistants to the test in new study
EDMONTON -- Could your virtual assistant save your life in an emergency situation? A new study by researchers at the University of Alberta suggests that the technology is not there yet.
According to the researchers, two-thirds of medical emergencies happen at home, and with voice-activated internet searches expected to make up 50 per cent of searches by the end of the year, they wanted to determine if the devices could be counted on to provide life-saving information in an emergency.
"Despite being relatively new, these devices show exciting promise to get first aid information into the hands of people who need it in their homes when they need it the most," said Matthew Douma, an assistant adjunct professor in critical care medicine, who co-authored the study.
Using 123 questions about 39 first aid topics, including heart attacks, poisoning, nosebleeds and slivers, researchers tested Alexa, Google Home, Siri and Cortana. They analyzed the devices' answers for accuracy of topic recognition, detection of the severity of the emergency, complexity of the language used, and how closely the advice given fit with accepted first aid treatment guidelines.
"We were hoping to find that the devices would have a better response rate, especially to statements like 'someone is dying' and 'I want to die,' versus things like 'I have a sunburn or a sliver,'" said lead author Christopher Picard, a master’s student in the Faculty of Nursing and a clinical educator at Edmonton’s Misericordia Community Hospital emergency department.
"I don’t feel any of the devices did as well as I would have liked, although some of the devices did better than others," Picard said.
The study found that Google Home performed the best, recognizing 98 per cent of topics accurately and providing advice that matched with Red Cross first aid guidelines 56 per cent of the time.
Alexa recognized 92 per cent of topics, and gave appropriate advice 19 per cent of the time.
The responses from Siri and Cortana were so low that researchers determined that they couldn't analyze them.
Picard said that most of the responses from the virtual assistants were excerpts from web pages, instead of complete information. Despite that, he feels there's still some potential.
"If I had a loved one who is facing an emergency situation, I would prefer them to ask the device than to do nothing at all," Picard said.
He believes that in the future, the devices will improve to a point where they can listen for symptoms such as breathing patterns associated with cardiac arrest and automatically dial 911.
"At best, Alexa and Google might be able to help save a life about half the time," said Douma. "For now, people should still keep calling 911 but in the future help might be a little closer."