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.”

DJI’s First Drone Arena in Tokyo to Open This Saturday

Consumer drone giant DJI will open its first Japanese drone arena in the city of Tokyo this Saturday, providing a space for both hardened professionals and curious newcomers to hone their flying skills.

The arena, which covers an area of 535 square metres, will not only include a large flying area complete with obstacles, but also offer a store where visitors can purchase the latest DJI drones and a technical support area where drone owners can get help with quadcopter issues.

The hope is that the arena will allow those who are curious about the technology but currently lack the space to try it out to get involved.

“As interest around our aerial technology continues to grow, the DJI Arena concept is a new way for us to engage not just hobbyists but also those considering this technology for their work or just for the thrill of flying,” said Moon Tae-Hyun, DJI’s director of brand management and operations.

“Having the opportunity to get behind the remote controller and trying out the technology first hand can enrich the customer experience. When people understand how it works or how easy it is to fly, they will discover what this technology can do for them and see a whole new world of possibilities.”

Images courtesy of DJI

In addition to its general sessions, which will allow members of the public to drop by and try their hand at flying drones, the arena will also offer private hire, including corporate events. For some companies, then, drone flying could become the new golf.

There will also be regular events, allowing pros to compete against one another, and drone training, in the form of DJI’s New Pilot Experience Program, for newcomers.

The arena has been launched in partnership with Japan Circuit, a developer of connected technologies, including drones.

“We are extremely excited to partner with DJI to launch the first DJI Arena in Japan,” said Tetsuhiro Sakai, CEO of Japan Circuit.

“Whether you are a skilled drone pilot or someone looking for their first drone, we welcome everyone to come and learn, experience it for themselves, and have fun. The new DJI Arena will not only serve as a gathering place for drone enthusiasts but also help us reach new customers and anyone interested in learning about this incredible technology.”

The arena is the second of its kind to be launched by DJI, with the first located in Yongin, South Korea, and detailed in the video above. .

Having opened in 2016, the area has attracted visitors from around the world, demonstrating serious demand for this type of entertainment space.

If the Tokyo launch goes well, it’s likely DJI will look at rolling out its arena concept to other cities, perhaps even bringing the model to the US and Europe.

For now, however, those who are interested can book time at the Tokyo arena here.

Commercial Human Spaceflight Advances Prompt Calls for Space Safety Institute

Commercial human spaceflight has been a long-held dream, but now it is finally poised to become a reality. Companies including Virgin Galactic and SpaceX are inching ever closer to taking private citizens into space, and there are serious plans for spaceports in several parts of the world, including Hawaii, the US, and Scotland, the UK.

But while the industry is advancing, the legal side of this fledgling commercial space industry remains underdeveloped, leading to calls for the development of an organisation to establish a framework for the safe operation of spaceports for human commercial spaceflights.

Writing in the journal New Space, Mclee Kerolle, from the United States International Institute of Space Law in Paris, France, has proposed the establishment of a Space Safety Institute recognised by the US congress and the United Nations.

This institute would “develop, enforce and adopt standards of excellence”, allowing the industry to develop while protecting it from liability and insurance risks.

“Currently, no international regulatory body exists to regulate the operation of spaceports,” he wrote. “This is unfortunate because while the advent of commercial human spaceflight industry is imminent, a majority of the focus from the legal community will be on regulating spaceflights and space access vehicles.

“However, the regulation of spaceports should be viewed in the same light as the rest of the commercial human spaceflight industry.”

The article focuses particularly on the establishment of a spaceport at the Kona International Airport in Keahole, Hawaii. At present, the spaceport’s development is subject to regulation by the Federal Aviation Authority, however there are aspects to spaceport development that do not apply to conventional aviation operations.

A spacesuit design for commercial flights developed by SpaceX. Featured image: SpaceX’s proposed spaceport for its conceptual interplanetary transport system. All images courtesy of SpaceX

The institute would be designed to first and foremost ensure safety within the industry, so it would be important, according to Kerolle, to ensure it was made up of individuals with expertise in the field, rather than bureaucrats.

“To make sure that this flexibility is inherent in a Space Safety Institute, the organization should be composed of individuals within the industry as opposed to government officials who are not familiar with the commercial human spaceflight industry,” he wrote.

“As a result, this should protect the commercial human spaceflight industry to some liability exposure, as well as promote growth in the industry to ensure the industry’s survival.”