5 min read

Virtual assistants like Alexa and smart speakers are being increasingly used in today’s time because of the convenience they come packaged with. It is good to have someone play a song or restock your groceries just on your one command, or probably more than one command. You get the point! But, how comfortable will you be if these assistants can provide you some medical advice?

Amazon has teamed up with UK’s National Health Service (NHS) to make Alexa your new medical consultant. The voice-enabled digital assistant will now answer your health-related queries by looking through the NHS website vetted by professional doctors.

The NHSX initiative to drive digital innovation in healthcare

Voice search definitely gives us the most “humanized” way of finding information from the web. One of the striking advantages of voice-enabled digital assistants is that the elderly, the blind and those who are unable to access the internet in other ways can also benefit from them. UK’s health secretary, Matt Hancock, believes that “embracing” such technologies will not only reduce the pressure General Practitioners (GPs) and pharmacists face but will also encourage people to take better control of their health care. He adds, “We want to empower every patient to take better control of their healthcare.

Partnering with Amazon is just one of many steps by NHS to adopt technology for healthcare. The NHS launched a full-fledged unit named NHSX (where X stands for User Experience) last week. Its mission is to provide staff and citizens “the technology they need” with an annual investment of more than $1 billion a year. This partnership was announced last year and NHS plans to partner with other companies such as Microsoft in the future to achieve its goal of “modernizing health services.”

Can we consider Alexa’s advice safe

Voice assistants are very fun and convenient to use, but only when they are actually working. Many a time it happens that the assistant fails to understand something and we have to yell the command again and again, which makes the experience outright frustrating. Furthermore, the track record of consulting the web to diagnose our symptoms has not been the most accurate one.

Many Twitter users trolled this decision saying that Alexa is not yet capable of doing simple tasks like playing a song accurately and the NHS budget could have been instead used on additional NHS staff, lowering drug prices, and many other facilities. The public was also left sore because the government has given Amazon a new means to make a profit, instead of forcing them to pay taxes. Others also talked about the times when Google (mis)-diagnosed their symptoms.

AI ethicists and experts raise data privacy issues

Amazon has been involved in several controversies around privacy concerns regarding Alexa. Earlier this month, it admitted that a few voice recordings made by Alexa are never deleted from the company’s server, even when the user manually deletes them. Another news in April this year revealed that when you speak to an Echo smart speaker, not only does Alexa but potentially Amazon employees also listen to your requests. Last month, two lawsuits were filed in Seattle stating that Amazon is recording voiceprints of children using its Alexa devices without their consent.

Last year, an Amazon Echo user in Portland, Oregon was shocked when she learned that her Echo device recorded a conversation with her husband and sent the audio file to one of his employees in Seattle. Amazon confirmed that this was an error because of which the device’s microphone misheard a series of words. Another creepy, yet funny incident was when Alexa users started hearing an unprompted laugh from their smart speaker devices. Alexa laughed randomly when the device was not even being used.

Big tech including Amazon, Google, and Facebook constantly try to reassure their users that their data is safe and they have appropriate privacy measures in place. But, these promises are hard to believe when there is so many news of data breaches involving these companies. Last year, a German computer magazine c’t reported that a user received 1,700 Alexa voice recordings from Amazon when he asked for copies of the personal data Amazon has about him.

Many experts also raised their concerns about using Alexa for giving medical advice. A Berlin-based tech expert Manthana Stender calls this move a “corporate capture of public institutions”.

Dr. David Wrigley, a British medical doctor who works as a general practitioner also asked how the voice recordings of people asking for health advice will be handled.

Director of Big Brother Watch, Silkie Carlo told BBC,  “Any public money spent on this awful plan rather than frontline services would be a breathtaking waste. Healthcare is made inaccessible when trust and privacy is stripped away, and that’s what this terrible plan would do. It’s a data protection disaster waiting to happen.”

Prof Helen Stokes-Lampard, of the Royal College of GPs, believes that the move has “potential”, especially for minor ailments. She added that it is important individuals do independent research to ensure the advice given is safe or it could “prevent people from seeking proper medical help and create even more pressure”. She further said that not everyone is comfortable using such technology or could afford it.

Amazon promises that the data will be kept confidential and will not be used to build a profile on customers. A spokesman shared with The Times, “All data was encrypted and kept confidential. Customers are in control of their voice history and can review or delete recordings.

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