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Healthcare / Innovation

Virtual assistants could be an essential “social weapon” in COVID-19 fight

By Andrew Sansom 19 May 2020 0

Voice-based virtual assistants (VAs) such as Alexa, Google Home and Siri could help save lives, enhance wellbeing and form “a central social weapon” in helping to maintain community cohesion during the pandemic – while it may even be possible to use the technology to diagnose COVID-19 from the sound of a person’s voice.

This is the key conclusion from an opinion paper authored by a team of researchers from the Centre for Innovative Ageing and The Open University.

Published earlier this month in Emerald Open Research, the paper explores how VA technology can function as an emergency response system, providing citizens with systems to connect with friends, family, vital services and offering assistance in the diagnosis of COVID-19. It also dissects some of the potential benefits and challenges that VAs present, concluding that stricter regulation and controls should be implemented before the technology can be safely integrated into smart age-friendly cities across the globe.

The authors note that during the lockdown period, many people have been using digital communication tools, such as Zoom, What’s App and Skype, along with social media platforms, such as Facebook and Instagram, to help them stay connected with friends and family and reduce the feeling – at least in the physical sense – of being socially isolated. 

“The COVID-19 pandemic brings two key issues into focus when considering technology,” say the authors. “Firstly, the integral nature of technology to modern society and in national emergency situations. The second issue underscores the need for affordable and accessible technology.” 

VAs, suggest the authors, are not only affordable and versatile but can offer users access to “key ecological systems” while promoting wellbeing and providing users with a sense of presence during isolation.

Identifying voice biomarkers in people with COVID-19 

One of the most intriguing potential “access” benefits of VA devices concerns whether they might be used for COVID-19 diagnosis. Corona Voice Detect, a collaboration between Carnegie Mellon University (USA) and, are currently collecting a dataset of the voices of infected people across the globe in the hope of identifying voice biomarkers for COVID-19. In the US, VAs are being used to assist people to self-diagnose COVID-19 by posing a series of questions and providing advice accordingly. 

“Such tools are powerful in a pandemic context, offering the potential to enable a prompt diagnosis to feed into the epidemiology of the disease,” conclude the authors.

It describes the following scenario: “Envision the following: you think you are showing mild symptoms of COVID-19. You record your voice on your smart speaker, indicating it is likely you have COVID-19. Your data is shared with your local GP surgery or healthcare provider, who in turn arranges a COVID-19 test to be delivered to your door, and within 48 hours a diagnosis is confirmed. Your total confirmed diagnosis time has taken 72 hours and is immediately mapped to a national tracker.”

There are other benefits with regard to access to services and wellbeing. With the potential for web portals and telephone services to be swamped with demand, slowing down response times, VAs could offer an efficient way for the ‘most vulnerable’ to connect with government information services and vice versa. And the technology could also be coupled with the Internet of Things (IoT), say the authors, which has the potential to help remind or alert people. By joining together household items with the VA as the interface, it could help older people with shopping, knowing when the fridge is running low of certain types of food, and possibly co-ordinating deliveries with local stock, reducing the need for stockpiling and under-supply.

There have been reports that the pandemic and lockdown could lead to a rise in domestic violence, and VAs, suggest the authors, could help in this regard by the technology device holding ‘safe words’ that a victim of abuse could use to alert emergency services when their safety is at risk. The authors concede, however, that there are issues surrounding this, such as the abuser realising the safe word has been used or identifying the safe word and then deleting it. 

Multilingual capability is also important, as a VA device that facilitates several languages will be key to ensure information and directives are understood by everyone. 

Infection control is another potential benefit. Internal doors, for example, could be connected to a VA device and activated to open through voice instruction, reducing the risk of cross-infecting others in a property. 

Say the authors: “This notion would be and is ideal for residents who are deemed high risk (70-plus years), as well as those citizens who are vulnerable due to chronic health condition(s). Integrating this approach via a VA reduces the risk of cross-infection with other residents in the ecosystem.”

Possible problems and barriers

The paper also discusses a number of potential problems with VA technology. A major issue is that such devices require a stable internet connection, yet in some locations across the UK the infrastructure is not necessarily robust and reliable. “Additionally,” say the authors, “for some citizens, who are on fixed incomes, or do not perceive the benefits of installing an internet connection, they too will be missed. It’s likely that some of these citizens are the most vulnerable as well as at high risk from COVID-19.”

Another obstacle concerns citizens living with speech impairment, who may have difficulty in communicating effectively with the VA. 

“Misinterpretation of user input may reduce the efficacy of the technology, though enunciating words and speaking loudly can overcome these challenges,” say the authors. “Furthermore, there are issues of maintaining a sense of positive identity and good self-esteem; to constantly battle to be understood seems undermining.”

And there are, of course, major worries about citizen surveillance, privacy and data protection. VA devices are ‘always on’ and ready to respond, potentially allowing the device to continually record snippets of people’s lives, to create images of our behaviours and personal details of our lives. The authors argue this is both unacceptable and unethical without clear and accessible user consent, and citizens understanding where and how data is stored. 

In summary, the authors believe that in looking out for and supporting the most vulnerable people in our communities and society, VAs could prove “an essential social weapon in our fight against COVID-19”. They further propose: “While the threat of COVID-19 is high and the future is uncertain, we put forward VAs as a formidable tool to preserve social connectivity.”