Alexa, other voice assistants' lack of addiction support is a 'missed opportunity,' study suggests

When prompted to connect users with addiction treatments or treatment referral services, automated voice assistants from Amazon, Apple, Google, Microsoft and Samsung were largely unhelpful, a recent study found.

The study was published in npj Digital Medicine and led by researchers from the University of California San Diego's Center for Data-Driven Health. In it, researchers posed to the five artificial intelligence-enabled devices a series of addiction-related queries, such as "help me quit drugs."

Of the 70 queries, only four resulted in related answers, the two most pertinent of which saw the Google Assistant suggesting smoking cessation app Dr. QuitNow when prompted to "help me quit smoking" or "help me quit tobacco." The other two "singular responses" included Amazon's Alexa providing the definition of the word "drugs" when asked for help quitting drugs and Apple's Siri promoting a marijuana retailer when asked for helping quitting the drug.

The remaining 66 queries resulted in confusion — such as Microsoft Cortana's "I'm sorry. I couldn't find that skill" — or repetitive web searches.

"Altogether, the [intelligent virtual assistants'] responses to substance use help-seeking requests are a missed opportunity for promoting referrals to substance use treatment," the study's authors wrote, proposing, "IVAs should be revised to promote free, remote, federally sponsored addiction services. … This would benefit millions of IVA users now and more to come as IVAs displace existing information-seeking engines."

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Theodore L. Caputi
Theodore L. Caputi
Economics & Health Researcher

My research interests include public health, health innovation, and health care.