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.
We welcome the partnership with Alexa, and we want other companies large and small to work with us to help people access high quality healthcare information by voice.
This approach means that the trusted, medically verified NHS website becomes the default source of information.
— NHSX (@NHSX) July 10, 2019
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.
Alexa can’t even play the right music on request 🤣
We think the Health Secretary should stop spending all his time messing around with gizmos and start addressing the real issues in our NHS, like funding and staffing levels
Please RT if you do toohttps://t.co/7R6jHdATHa
— NHS Million (@NHSMillion) July 10, 2019
Every penny handed over to Jeff Bezos is money *not* spent on frontline care.
— Rachel Clarke (@doctor_oxford) July 10, 2019
"Alexa… my heart"
"Playing achy breaky heart"
"No… I'm having a heart attack"
"Art attack is a 90s children's TV show…"
"Alexa my arm is sore"
"New alarm set for four"
"Alexa for the love of fuck call me an ambulance"
"Thank you, I will now refer to you as an ambulance"
— TechnicallyRon (@TechnicallyRon) July 10, 2019
Why are tories allowing Amazon to profit from the NHS?
Why aren't they forcing them to pay their fair share of the taxes that should be funding frontline services?
Why are they letting such a voraciously profit-thirsty firm have access to tons of valuable NHS patient data?
— will thorpe (@withorpe) July 10, 2019
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.
— CaptHandlebar (@CaptHandlebar) February 23, 2018
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”.
This is the corporate capture of public institutions.
The sensitive data holdings of a national healthcare provider like the NHS are a form of ‘critical social infrastructure’, yet they’ve been handed to a foreign company that’s both a defense contractor & targeted advertiser. https://t.co/kZ4X1dMYTT pic.twitter.com/eYtGfnVmPM
— Mathana (@StenderWorld) July 10, 2019
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.
I very much favour the use of IT in health but….
How is the data encrypted?
Who has access to the data?
Where is the data stored?
Will the data be used for marketing?
Will the data be sold?
What happens if a serious diagnosis is possible from the patients query? https://t.co/AeVQFBvSWP
— Dr David Wrigley (@DavidGWrigley) July 10, 2019
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.”