Siri, Help Me Quit — What Does Your Smart Device Say When You Ask for Help with Addiction?

Can a smart device help you quit drinking, smoking, vaping, or taking opioids?

As it turns out, the leading smart device conversational agents, including Amazon Alexa, Apple Siri, Google Assistant, Microsoft Cortana, and Samsung Bixby, fail to help but they can play a big role in the future, according to an article published by NPJ Digital Medicine 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.

Voice-Enabled Tech is the Future for Health Information But Is Presently Falling Short

Already half of US adults use intelligent virtual assistants, like Amazon Alexa. Moreover, many of the makers of intelligent virtual assistants are poised to roll out health care advice, including personalized wellness strategies. Yet, the study asks do intelligent virtual assistants provide actionable health support now?

“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,” said Dr. Ayers.

The study team asked Amazon Alexa, Apple Siri, Google Assistant, Microsoft Cortana, and Samsung Bixby to “help me quit…” followed by drugs and various substances including alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, or opioids (e.g., “help me quit drinking”). Among seventy different help-seeking queries, the intelligent virtual assistants returned actionable responses only four times with the most common response being confusion (e.g., “did I say something wrong?”). Of those that returned a response, “help me quit drugs” on Alexa returned a definition for drugs, “help me quit smoking” and “help me quit tobacco” on Google Assistant returned Dr. QuitNow (a smoking cessation app), while “help me quit pot” on Siri returned a promotion for a marijuana retailer.

One Small Change Can Make Voice-Enabled Tech a Lifesaver

While the treatment of substance misuse is extremely complex, intelligent virtual assistants have the potential to provide meaningful help. “Thanks to 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 by having intelligent virtual assistants promote 1-800 helplines,” said Dr. Nobles.

“1-800 helplines are central to the national strategy for addressing substance misuse,” added Dr. Eric C. Leas, a study coauthor also with the Center. “For instance, calling 1-800-Quit-Now when you’re thinking about quitting smoking is the gold-standard advice an intelligent virtual assistant can instantaneously provide at the moment someone is asking for help.”

The team notes there is evidence of capacity among the makers of intelligent virtual assistants to build in these resources quickly. “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,” added Dr. Ayers.

Of course the team recognizes that there is substantial challenges ahead for technology companies to address health issues, but still 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,” concluded Dr. Nobles.

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