Voice Assistants Play Key Role In Triaging COVID-19

hand washing

While negative and at times frightening headlines abound these days and there is certainly much to be worried about, it is at least heartening to see how many firms of all shapes and sizes have refocused their energy around helping others, even as their top and bottom lines are taking a hit. There are the legions of grocery stores opening up special seniors-only shopping hours to protect the most vulnerable from potential exposure to the coronavirus, and firms such as Facebook, GE, Airbnb and Pornhub donating masks, medical supplies, lodging and protective equipment for first responders and medical workers nationwide.

The world may be on lockdown amid the coronavirus pandemic, but people want to help, and are finding myriad ways to come together do it virtually. And, as it turns out, even the virtual “people” have gotten in on the act — in the form of a host of rapid upgrades to Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri and Google’s Home Assistant.

Initially, roughly two weeks ago when the U.S. as a whole went on high alert due to the emerging pandemic, all three of the most popular voice assistants offered fairly straightforward data but limited data care of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), World Health Organization (WHO) and National Institutes of Health (NIH). All three also made it fairly easy for consumers to navigate to vetted primary sources. Siri did so directly, Alexa gave a brief history of the coronavirus and offered some prompts for additional questions, while Google Assistant offered the WHO definition, listed symptoms and offered suggestions on avoiding exposure.

As of this week, the assistants are also moving into the preliminary diagnosis and COVID-19 triage business. Amazon Alexa users in the U.S. can now directly talk to their voice assistant about how to begin diagnosing cases of COVID-19.

“Using Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance, our Alexa health team built a U.S. experience that lets you use Alexa to check your risk level for COVID-19 at home, using just your voice. Ask, ‘Alexa, what do I do if I think I have COVID-19?’ or ‘Alexa, what do I do if I think I have coronavirus?,’ and Alexa will ask a series of questions about your travel history, symptoms, and possible exposure. Based on your responses, Alexa will provide CDC guidance given your risk level and symptoms,” Amazon posted on its blog this weekend. The diagnostic tool, according to Amazon, is U.S only right now, though in Japan Amazon is also rolling out a somewhat similar tool that will allow customers to assess the risk levels in their home environment.

And for those worldwide who are tired trying to count to 20 in their heads as they wash their hands, Alexa users in the U.S., Australia, Brazil, Canada, France, India and the U.K., can now ask Alexa to sing a song for 20 seconds to make sure hand-washing goes on for as long as it should. Be warned, Alexa’s singing voice thus far has not gotten great reviews. In the blog post, Amazon also touts Alexa’s enhanced ability to bring consumers a curated newsfeed on coronavirus developments as they unfold, and to connect with others for work, entertainment or for charitable purposes like Red Cross blood donations.

While Alexa’s recently announced slate of coronavirus-related upgrades is thus far the most extensive in the U.S., it is far from the only one. Apple has also upgraded Siri to do more than merely guide users to CDC data. Users can now directly ask questions like “How do I know if I have coronavirus” or “Do I have coronavirus?” and Siri will ask follow-up questions — and offer preliminary advice based on the answers given. If a consumer appears to be in acute distress, it will suggest 911, and if a consumer’s symptoms are ambiguous Siri will provide links to telehealth apps on the App Store for anyone who reports they cannot reach a physical provider.

The Google Assistant, as of yet, has not installed a diagnostic app that helps consumers make an early determination as to whether watching and waiting, testing or medical intervention might be most advisable, the way Apple and Amazon have. Google has as of last week offered two upgrades to its voice assistant’s capabilities. Like Alexa, the Google Assistant has added a 40-second hand-washing timer all its own (double the official 20-second recommendation), and like Alexa sings a song to go along with it. By all accounts, Google offers a somewhat more tuneful rendition.

Google has also, like Amazon and Siri, beefed up its COVID-19 news feed with a host of more recent and topical videos and articles available attached to the question, “What is the latest on the coronavirus?”

The Coming Pace of Upgrades 

So far, the upgrades and updates driven by COVID-19 have rolled out consistently if not incredibly quickly, as there is a lot going on. But experts agree the segment will be well worth watching over the next several weeks and months, as voice assistants, and the hands-free interaction paths they offer are suddenly looking particularly appealingly sanitary, in a world where consumers are looking to limit their tactile contact with surfaces.

Consumers, additionally, are more likely to be in a commerce context around their voice assistant now than they were two weeks ago — as they are stuck at home and looking for an easy channel from which to replenish the strategic toilet paper reserve. Voice commerce, which has lagged in the general voice ecosystem when it comes to consumer adoption, might just be about to get a major shot in the arm as consumers look to order food, grocery items and goods and might actually prefer to tell an artificial intelligence (AI) device to do it than tap a screen for the same activity.

That is far from a lock, however. While not frozen solid by statute the way brick-and-mortar commerce now is, mobile and digital commerce has not enjoyed a massive bump from consumers shut in at home. According to PYMNTS data, increasingly alarmed consumers are just doing less shopping these days in general as uncertainty reigns.

But if the voice assistants can be part of building a more information-rich and relevant environment for users — and offer them a digital commerce experience that is both metaphorically and literally cleaner?

It might well be worth watching how many amazing use cases for voice assistants COVID-19 unearths for consumers.



The How We Shop Report, a PYMNTS collaboration with PayPal, aims to understand how consumers of all ages and incomes are shifting to shopping and paying online in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our research builds on a series of studies conducted since March, surveying more than 16,000 consumers on how their shopping habits and payments preferences are changing as the crisis continues. This report focuses on our latest survey of 2,163 respondents and examines how their increased appetite for online commerce and digital touchless methods, such as QR codes, contactless cards and digital wallets, is poised to shape the post-pandemic economy.