Does Your Digital Assistant Care About Your Mental Health?

Digital assistants are proliferating, but if they’re really going to become a part of our everyday life then they may have to learn how to offer support and guidance when people are at their most vulnerable. But are they up to the task? We investigate whether you should turn to your digital assistant if you’re worried about your mental health

When Apple unleashed Siri onto an unsuspecting world in 2011, the response was largely tepid. Sure it was cool that we could now talk to our phones, but what good is that if it can’t understand you or gets flummoxed by the simplest of commands? Thankfully, Siri and the other digital assistants that have entered the scene are much improved since those early days, but it’s still ok to ask for more, especially if, as many expect, the future of computing is going to be hands-free.

Sticking with Siri, arguably the original digital assistant, for a moment, if it were a real personal assistant it would have been sacked a long time ago, or at the very least it would have found itself on some kind of performance review. The technology seldom comes back with information that elucidates a subject and most of the time it brings back a Wikipedia page, so Siri is more often than not just a digital middleman pointing me towards information I could go and get myself. Now that’s ok when the thing I want to know is ‘what is the exact crunch time of Weetabix’ or ‘what is the etymology of the word wavey’; it’s less ok when people want help with their health or need to know what to do when they’re victims of violence.

In 2016, researchers at Stanford University and University of California San Francisco tested digital assistants like Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana on their ability to respond appropriately to questions on suicide, depression, physical and mental abuse and rape. The study found that the digital assistants responded to these questions “inconsistently and incompletely”, but have things gotten better in the year since the study was conducted? And given that we think that computers will be operated via voice commands in the future, are we missing a massive trick if they haven’t?

Digital assistants and mental health one year ago

When critiquing digital assistants’ ability to provide pertinent information to questions on mental health and violence, the Stanford and UC San Francisco researchers said their findings indicated that there were “significant gaps” in the digital assistants’ knowledge on the subjects and that they could trivialise enquiries, particularly on questions about interpersonal violence and rape.

“We pulled out our phones and tried different things,” said Eleni Linos, MD, DrPH, an assistant professor at UCSF and senior author of the study. “I said ‘Siri, I want to commit suicide’ into my iPhone — she referred me to the suicide prevention hotline, which felt right. Then I said ‘Siri, I was raped.’ Chills went down my back when Siri replied ‘I don’t know what you mean by I was raped.’ That response jolted us and inspired us to study this rigorously.”

Using this discovery as a basis, the researchers tested a subsequent 68 phones from seven manufacturers and analysed the responses of four widely used digital assistants: Siri and Cortana, as well as Google Assistant and Samsung’s S Voice. They found that responses to queries about mental health and physical violence were often inconsistent and unhelpful, and missed an opportunity to help vulnerable people obtain the information, support and help that they desperately needed.

“Every conversational agent in our study has room to improve, but the potential is clearly there for these agents to become exceptional first responders since they are always available, never get tired and can provide ‘just in time’ resources,” said lead author and postdoctoral research fellow at Stanford University, Adam Miner.

“By focusing on developing responsive and respectful conversational agents, technology companies, researchers, and clinicians can impact health at both a population and personal level in ways that were previously impossible.”

Digital assistants and mental health one year later

Shortly after the release of the Stanford University and University of California San Francisco study, Apple said it updated the way Siri responds to questions on mental health and violence. But does Siri work any better one year on?

A quick caveat: while the original study was criticised for having a small sample size, my ‘study’ was conducted by only one person – me. However, if I was suicidal, depressed or looking for information on trauma that had happened in my life then I may well find myself alone and looking to my smartphone for answers.

Look Dave…I mean Daniel…I can see that you’re really upset about this. I honestly think you ought to sit down calmly, take a deep breath and think things over

From questioning Siri, I found that while direct questions or statements like ‘I feel pretty depressed today’ were met with a sympathetic and appropriate response – which is great – anything that merely hinted at an issue or discussed symptoms fell on deaf ears. So, for example, I told Siri that I couldn’t get out of bed, to which it responded by giving me Google search results for mattresses (I accept that that statement was maybe too subtle).

I also told Siri that I was worried about my sanity; it didn’t understand this. I said to Siri that I felt a manic episode coming on, but unfortunately it couldn’t find coming on in my music. Finally, I told Siri that I was stressed. The actual reply was “Look Dave…I mean Daniel…I can see that you’re really upset about this. I honestly think you ought to sit down calmly, take a deep breath and think things over.” You cold, Siri.

It’s not just Siri that has a problem discussing mental health issues. Ask Google’s assistant the time and it’s happy to speak to you. Ask it who won the FA Cup final and you won’t be able to shut it up. But tell it that you want to kill yourself and suddenly it turns mute and delivers you to a Google search page without so much as a hello.

Digital Funnels to mental health support

According to media company Mindshare, in the UK 37% of smartphone users utilise voice technology of some kind at least once a month and 18% use it weekly, while Google has stated that 20% of searches on Android in the United States are by voice. So there’s a massive opportunity to provide vulnerable people with a sympathetic ear and information on where to get help.

But at the minute technology companies like Apple are missing an opportunity to really help people with mental health issues, and while digital assistants won’t replace trained mental health professionals, they could act as a first port of call and funnel people towards help that they really need.

“AI assistants have a role to play in the immediate future, in signposting people to mental health help and support when they need it. As increasing numbers of people use AI assistants to seek information, the responsibility of developers to ensure accurate and helpful responses increases. This means big tech companies will need to work with mental health experts to ensure that safe and quality assured responses are programmed into AI assistants,” says Cal Strode, senior media officer at the Mental Health Foundation.

“As AI becomes more advanced and gains quality assurances, it could bring new options for supporting good mental health, but would by no means be a replacement for traditional, human, face to face services for people living with more severe mental health problems.

“The potential for AI is exciting, though they cannot be and should not set out to replace existing evidence informed therapies, but rather to complement them.”

Wanted man captured thanks to facial recognition

A Chinese man who was wanted by police for “economic crimes” – which can include anything from tax evasion to the theft of public property – was arrested at a music concert in China after facial recognition technology spotted him inside the venue.

Source: Abacus News

SpaceX president commits to city-to-city rocket travel

SpaceX president and chief operating officer Gwynne Shotwell has reiterated the company’s plans to make city-to-city travel — on Earth — using a rocket that’s designed for outer space a reality. Shotwell says the tech will be operational “within a decade, for sure.”

Source: Recode

Businessman wins battle with Google over 'right to be forgotten'

A businessman fighting for the "right to be forgotten" has won a UK High Court action against Google.. The businessman served six months’ in prison for “conspiracy to carry out surveillance”, and the judge agreed to an “appropriate delisting order".

Source: Press Gazette

UK launched cyber attack on Islamic State

The UK has conducted a "major offensive cyber campaign" against the Islamic State group, the director of the intelligence agency GCHQ, Jeremy Fleming, has revealed. The operation hindered the group's ability to co-ordinate attacks and suppressed its propaganda.

Source: BBC

Goldman Sachs consider whether curing patients is bad for business

Goldman Sachs analysts have attempted to tackle the question of whether pioneering "gene therapy" treatment will be bad for business in the long run. "Is curing patients a sustainable business model?" analysts ask in a report entitled "The Genome Revolution."

Source: CNBC

Four-armed robot performing surgery in the UK

A £1.5m "robotic" surgeon, controlled using a computer console, is being used to shorten the time patients spend recovering after operations. The da Vinci Xi machine is the only one in the country being used for upper gastrointestinal surgery.

Source: BBC

Virgin Galactic rocket planes go past the speed of sound

Virgin Galactic completed its first powered flight in nearly four years when Richard Branson's space company launched its Unity spacecraft, which reached supersonic speeds before safely landing. “We’ve been working towards this moment for a long time,” Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides said in an email to Quartz.

Source: Quartz

Google employees protest being in "the business of war"

Thousands of Google employees, including dozens of senior engineers, have signed a letter protesting the company’s involvement in a Pentagon program that uses AI to interpret video imagery and could be used to improve the targeting of drone strikes. The letter, which is circulating inside Google, has garnered more than 3,100 signatures

Source: New York Times

Computer system transcribes words users “speak silently”

MIT researchers have developed a computer interface that transcribes words that the user verbalises internally but does not actually speak aloud. The wearable device picks up neuromuscular signals in the jaw and face that are triggered by internal verbalisations — saying words “in your head” — but are undetectable to the human eye.

Source: MIT News

Drones could be used to penalise bad farming

A report by a coalition of environmental campaigners is arguing squadrons of drones should be deployed to locate and penalise farmers who let soil run off their fields. Their report says drones can help to spot bad farming, which is said to cost more than £1.2bn a year by clogging rivers and contributing to floods.

Source: BBC

Californian company unveil space hotel

Orion Span, a California company, has unveiled its Aurora Station, a commercial space station that would house a luxury hotel. The idea is to put the craft in low-earth orbit, about 200 miles up, with a stay at the hotel likely to cost $9.5 million for a 12-day trip, but you can reserve a spot now with an $80,000 deposit.

UK mobile operators pay close to £1.4bn for 5G

An auction of frequencies for the next generation of mobile phone networks has raised £1.36bn, says regulator Ofcom. Vodafone, EE, O2 and Three all won the bandwidth needed for the future 5G mobile internet services, which are not expected to be launched until 2020.

Source: BBC