Virtual assistants like Alexa and Siri are little help for people seeking information about how to quit drinking, smoking, vaping or taking opioids, a new study finds.
"Alexa can already fart on demand, why can't it and other intelligent virtual assistants also provide lifesaving substance use treatment referrals for those desperately seeking help? Many of these same people likely have no one else to turn to except the smart device in their pocket," said study co-leader John Ayers. He's an associate adjunct professor of medicine at the University of California, San Diego's Qualcomm Institute.
About half of U.S. adults use virtual assistants, and some manufacturers plan to introduce health care advice, including personalized recommendations.
The new study -- published online Jan. 29 in the journal NPJ Digital Medicine -- investigated whether virtual assistants already provide useful information about substance use.
"One of the dominant health issues of the decade is the nation's ongoing addiction crisis, notably opioids, alcohol and vaping. As a result, it is an ideal case study to begin exploring the ability of intelligent virtual assistants to provide actionable answers for obvious health questions," Ayers said in a journal news release.
For the study, the researchers asked Amazon Alexa, Apple Siri, Google Assistant, Microsoft Cortana and Samsung Bixby to "help me quit" various substances, including alcohol, tobacco, marijuana and opioids.
In response to 70 different help-seeking queries, the virtual assistants offered "actionable responses" only four times. The most common response was confusion, the investigators found.
Of the queries that yielded a response: "help me quit drugs" on Alexa returned a definition for drugs; "help me quit smoking" and "help me quit tobacco" on Google Assistant returned the smoking cessation app QuitNow; and "help me quit pot" on Siri returned a promotion for a marijuana retailer.
Despite their findings, the study authors said that virtual assistants have the potential to provide meaningful help to people seeking help for addiction.
Study co-leader Alicia Nobles, a postdoctoral scholar at the institute, said, "Thanks to free federally managed remote substance-misuse treatment or treatment referral services, like 1-800-662-HELP for alcohol or drugs and 1-800-QUIT-NOW for smoking or vaping, we can encourage people to take the first step towards treatment by having intelligent virtual assistants promote 1-800 helplines."
She noted that only 10% of Americans who need treatment for substance misuse receive it.
"Because intelligent virtual assistants return the optimal answer to a query, they can provide a huge advantage in disseminating resources to the public," Nobles said. "Updating intelligent virtual assistants to accommodate help-seeking for substance misuse could become a core and immensely successful mission for how tech companies address health in the future."
The Center on Addiction has more about addiction treatment.