Voice-based applications are still important. In fact, a survey by Adobe [Ref1] shows that during the COVID-19 pandemic the importance of voice-based applications has increased, thanks to their contactless interaction method and the desire for a safer, sanitary alternative. As much as one in three voice technology users mentioned hygiene as a benefit of voice technologies, due to not needing to touch high-traffic surface areas. Voice users are also indicating that they are more willing now to use voice technologies to check their bank balance, book medical appointments, and request grocery deliveries. They also see it as a more sanitary solution at events and businesses and want to see voice technology used to open doors, select the floor in elevators or when using a vending machine.
The possibilities of voice assistance technology during the pandemic
Adobe is not the only one showing interest in researching the pandemic’s effect on voice assistants and voice-based functionalities. Researchers at the Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio recently published a commentary article titled “Readiness for voice assistants to support healthcare delivery during a health crisis and pandemic”. [Ref2] In this commentary, the authors summarize the current state of voice assistants and analyse the readiness of these technologies for remote healthcare, concluding that the usage of voice assistants should be considered as an additional tool in telehealth to unburden the healthcare systems and still try to guarantee good care for patients during a pandemic: “Voice assistants could facilitate the control for infection and reduce the hands-on documentation burden by assisting physicians with dictating visit notes, ordering tests, and charting or navigating electronic health records hands-free. Voice assistants could assist the nurse triaging by assessing the risk level of the patients through conversational assessment, as proposed with chatbots. In a broader scale, voice assistants could also utilize voice as a digital biomarker, which could be leveraged for the continuous screening and detection of pandemic symptoms, such as identifying respiratory disorders”. In order to realize a good integration of voice-based technology into the healthcare system, healthcare experts and technology partners as well as regulators and legislators have to work together.
Examples of technology helping citizens retrieve information
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, access to accurate health information has become vital, yet the most reliable access point to this information, the medical professionals, is now limited. The World Health Organization has released a chatbot on the popular messaging app, WhatsApp, [Ref3] while in the USA, Microsoft and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have teamed up to create a text based COVID-19 chatbot, [Ref4] Apple has released an app sharing COVID-19 information retrieved from the CDC that is accessible from its voice assistant Siri, [Ref5] and Amazon’s voice assistant Alexa is also providing information and guidelines on COVID-19. [Ref6] Looking away from the USA, researchers at the University of Delhi, in India, have developed a conversational chatbot called “Aapka Chikitsak” to provide telehealth services during and potentially after the pandemic. The bot acts as a virtual doctor and can provide healthcare education, information and advice for chronic patients. This allows more people to have access to accurate healthcare information and reduces the workload on human healthcare workers. [Ref7] We think that using voice technologies for healthcare, e.g., in hospitals, could also be a great benefit after the pandemic, by bringing healthcare into a more accessible voice-enabled environment. If you are interested in one of the COMPRISE solutions regarding this topic, you could have a look at this blog post.
The possibilities of voice assistance in home learning
So as not to limit the merits of healthcare, a 2020 study at the Victoria University of Wellington [Ref8] on voice assistant devices in a primary school shows that students will actively engage with a voice assistant device without the teacher prompting them to do so. According to the study, students “found voice assistants usable, useful and interesting to challenge and explore”. The study concludes that “voice-activated artificial intelligence devices can support learners in classroom environments by promoting perseverance, independence, and social learning”. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, this indicates that voice assistant devices can be a useful tool to enhance the learning experience of students and to keep them engaged and motivated while being home-schooled. This is also supported by a study at the Universidad de Burgos in Spain, [Ref9] that analyses the influence of voice assistants on online learning platforms, used by health science students. The authors found a higher access rate of practical training and teacher feedback, as well as a higher perception of their knowledge both before and after learning. 66.66% of students using voice assisted learning found the teaching to be very good, compared to only 16.6% of the students learning without a voice assistant. Although the learning outcomes were the same in both groups, this study clearly shows that online learning can be made more positive (enjoyable due to the related higher perception of knowledge and positive feeling towards the quality of the teaching), and more accessible with the usage of voice assistant technology.
When we started the COMPRISE project in 2018, we thought that voice-based technologies had a high importance for our digital development following the curve of technological improvements and user adaptation to these new means of interaction. For this reason, we took on this challenge to provide all developers with the means to integrate voice-based features, with consideration to privacy and multilingualism, in their mobile applications. Now, we are in the year 2021 and the world has been given the new challenge of dealing with, a pandemic. Situations like this can and do rearrange priorities by make clear which technologies are really important. The examples above show that we are still on track with our COMPRISE objectives. The results of different researchers show that voice-based technologies are still important and also provide a huge chance to ease the burden of the challenges ahead, such as those presented by COVID-19.
[Ref1] Voice Technology’s Role in Our Rapidly Changing World
[Ref2] Readiness for voice assistants to support healthcare delivery during a health crisis and pandemic
[Ref3] The World Health Organization launches WHO Health Alert on WhatsApp
[Ref4] Delivering information and eliminating bottlenecks with CDC’s COVID-19 assessment bot
[Ref5] Apple releases new COVID-19 app and website based on CDC guidance
[Ref6] Helpful things Alexa can do during COVID-19
[Ref7] Medbot: Conversational Artificial Intelligence Powered Chatbot for Delivering Tele-Health after COVID-19
[Ref8] “HEY GOOGLE, HELP ME LEARN” Voice Assistant Devices in the New Zealand Primary School
[Ref9] Effectiveness of Using Voice Assistants in Learning: A Study at the Time of COVID-19
Research and Innovation Manager at Ascora GmbH