Voice assistant Alexa can help the young and the old

13 April 2017Innovation & AI

Last year, Amazon’s Alexa was the big star at CES, one of the world’s largest electronic trade shows. The list of Alexa’s integrations is already gigantic, and it’s still growing. Not too long ago, we put chips in ordinary machines to make them smart; now, the trend is to give every device a pair of ears and a voice. There are plenty of examples of voice integrations, and it’s interesting to observe how different industries are responding to the strategic possibilities. Even more interesting is the way consumers respond. Usually, new technologies carry high expectations on the commercial side, but disappointing results on the side of users.

So what is the consumer response to voice assistants? The answer is best illustrated by the following two examples: children and elderly.

Alexa, the new babysitter

Alexa may be a useful gadget for adults, but ‘she’ is also immensely appealing to children. Kids love to ask Alexa questions: what the distance to China is, how fast a lion can run, or other queries to which their parents don’t have the answer.

Parents can also use Alexa to entertain their children. Kids can play games with Alexa, as she can imitate animal sounds and knows all about Pokémon. There are many more examples.

But it’s not just fun and games. Some parents worry that Alexa could be a bad influence. Amazon’s voice assistant is programmed to answer questions as quickly as possible. It’s not necessary to say “please” or “thank you,” and whether children speak politely doesn’t influence the tone of Alexa’s response. Aristotle, a voice assistant that’s being developed by toy company Mattel, offers a solution to parents concerned about politeness in voice control. The assistant has a mode in which it only replies to well-mannered questions.

Another element that still needs improvement is voice recognition for children. Alexa normally recognizes about 95 percent of questions, as long as an adult asks them. Because Amazon has endlessly trained Alexa to understand adult voices, she doesn’t always get what children are saying. Sometimes to the dismay of kids themselves.

Alexa can entertain kids

It’s only a matter of time before the issue of kids’ voice recognition will belong the past. However, getting used to the unusual way children formulate their questions will take a lot longer.

Not knowing what day it is

Another group likely to benefit from digital assistants like Alexa are the elderly, and particularly those who are suffering from dementia or Parkinson’s disease. Rick Phelps, a 63-year old lawyer with Alzheimer’s disease, wrote a blog post about how Alexa gives back what dementia had taken from him: memory. Every day, Alexa reminds him to take his medicine, and he can endlessly ask her what day it is.

Things that most people take for granted can be tough for Alzheimer patients. Therefore, a device that allows them to regain a sense of control over their lives is worth its weight in gold. Because of his disease, Rick Phelps is no longer able to read, but Alexa can read him audiobooks. In Rick’s words: “The item sells for $179.00. And for what Amazon Echo does for me, it’s priceless.”

Alexa is not just a blessing for those with dementia, but also for their caretakers. Their work often requires massive amounts of patience, especially when people keep asking the same things over and over again. Alexa makes sure there’s always someone around to answer those questions. Of course, she can never replace real human contact, but she can contribute as a helpful assistant. As a result, caretakers regain more time and energy for personal care.

Those with a motor impairment or Parkinson’s disease can also benefit from Alexa’s presence. She can help control light switches, saving people the difficulty of having to get up and move through a room. When Alexa uses smart devices like fridges, coffee machines, and vacuum cleaners to coordinate tasks around the house, patients can become less dependent on the people around them. This way, Alexa can be a smart, friendly helper for people with an impairment. The best part: she’ll never get tired, bored, or frustrated.

Alexa’s assistance at the hospital

Can Alexa be helpful at work? Absolutely. Several American organizations have already given it a try. Amongst them is the Boston Children’s Hospital. Their staff, from surgeons to nurses, got together to figure out in what procedures Alexa could be of help.

Alexa can assist in hospital operations

One of the outcomes was that Alexa could take photos during operations. After every operation, surgeons need to pair medical photographs with the right notes. That takes a lot of time, as all of these photos are similar. Here, Alexa could activate the camera to take photos and record audio notes for transcription. She could then immediately add this data to a patient’s file.

Alexa can help during nearly every hospital procedure that requires doctors to wear sterile gloves. When anesthetists treat a patient in critical condition, they need to check on a screen with the heartbeat every 30 seconds. Alexa could help out by announcing the BPM, or by giving a signal when the pulse is changing too fast. Furthermore, operation rooms often have music playing in the background. With Alexa, doctors can start Pandora or Spotify playlists without having to take off their gloves.

Blood tests are another case where Alexa could be of use. Doctors can save 15 minutes per patient by requesting information directly from Alexa: questions about how many tubes to use, what color tubes to use, and in which order.

Customer privacy

In the case of Boston Children’s Hospital, questioning the security of using Alexa is crucial. It should be impossible to hack hospital systems through Alexa, in order to prevent sensitive patient data from becoming publicly accessible. On top of that, it’s important that the voice assistant shouldn’t provide doctors, patients, or parents with information that isn’t intended for them.

Amazon takes security very seriously, as it’s checking whether third-party Alexa Skills match their standards of security. Amazon is also working on a feature that recognizes different users by their voice through Voice ID. This would mean that some users could be granted different usage permissions than others. That would prevent situations in which any person could use Alexa to place orders in previously used online stores.

A striking example is the case of a 6-year old girl that asked Alexa to order a 160 dollar dollhouse on Amazon, without her parents’ permission. When a San Diego television station covered the incident in a news report, the newscaster spoke the following words: “I love the little girl saying ‘Alexa, order me a dollhouse.’” As a result, hundreds of dollhouses were ordered all throughout San Diego, as the newscaster’s words had activated Alexa in many living rooms. After all, Alexa is constantly listening, ready to help at any moment. This example shows that’s not always desirable, but users can prevent situations like these through the device’s settings.

A Dutch Alexa for the young and the old

It’s clear that Alexa can do a lot for both young and old. Although she’ll never be a complete alternative to human interaction, there are many routine tasks that Alexa can do for us. Whether it’s in the children’s bedroom, the nursery home, or the operation room, every situation offers possibilities for Alexa.

Echo, Amazon’s intelligent speaker that carries Alexa, is not yet available in the Netherlands. But that doesn’t mean we cannot prepare for when Alexa does arrive here. Once she does, the voice interface will immediately generate new ways to interact with consumers. That’s why marketers in the Netherlands can prepare for the future of voice, by thinking ahead about the possibilities of smart assistants like Alexa. To get the most out of Alexa’s potential, start planning your new product vision today.

This was our third and final article in the series ‘Alexa, the Voice of Holland.’ To learn more about Alexa, read part one and part two. Do you also want Alexa to come to the Netherlands? Sign our petition and make sure that Amazon hears our voice.