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Alexa wants to diagnose your illness and sell you meds!

Since their inception 6 years ago, the potential use of Smart Speakers within the healthcare system has been an area that many have been keen to explore and the latest move by Amazon shows that this has not passed them by.

In general, Amazon’s key strategy with the Alexa platform is simple; Another way to sell. A voice-activated route straight into their global marketplace. It would seem, at first glance that the latest move from the tech giants was a diversion from this key principle… but only at first glance.

Earlier this year Amazon submitted a patent for technology that allows an Alexa-type device analyse the users your voice in order to determine both your physical and emotional health.

The patent in question is for a voice assistant that can use a “Voice processing algorithm” to determine the users’ emotional state and detect any “abnormal” conditions. By identifying emotions such as “Happiness, joy, anger, sorrow and stress” it can in turn realise abnormalities when compared to the users’s normal pitch tone etc… and compare that to other similar cases.

“Physical conditions such as sore throats and coughs may be determined based at least in part on a voice input from the user, and emotional conditions such as an excited emotional state or a sad emotional state may be determined based at least in part on voice input from a user. A cough or sniffle, or crying, may indicate that the user has a specific physical or emotional abnormality.” – Amazon Patent

It would appear that this is a move away from Amazon’s core “sales funnel” principles but, further reading proves this not to be the case. The result of being able to identify a user’s emotions and physical state is the ability to then sell targeted adverts that can treat that condition:

“A current physical and/or emotional condition of the user may facilitate the ability to provide highly targeted audio content, such as audio advertisements or promotions, to the user. For example, certain content, such as content related to cough drops or flu medicine, may be targeted towards users who have sore throats.” – Amazon Patent

There is no guarantee of course that this patented product will ever make it to market. Plus, some fundamental questions about user privacy will need to be answered before it does. But, it does give a glimpse into the future world of targeted ads and ultimately it all comes down to one simple belief: The more an advertiser knows about its customer the easier it becomes to sell a product…. and Smark Speakers are great at harvesting data!

It makes perfect sense that Amazon are keen to explore the Health Care market having already this year set up their own Health & Wellness Team and purchased online prescription service Pill Pack. Add that to the potential size of the healthcare market and it is no surprise that Amazon are looking for ways to monetize in this area.

However, I believe, the potential impact of Amazon Alexa and other Smart Speakers on the Health Care market reaches far beyond diagnosis and selling medicine/related services.

We have already seen many case studies where local health authorities have used Smart Speakers as a way to keep in touch with patients isolated by both their conditions and/or geography.

We have also seen how “Smart Homes” can help those with physically limiting conditions perform tasks in their homes that previously they could not.

As a diagnosis tool, however, we should proceed with caution. Anyone who has ever turned to google to diagnose a potential medical condition will know the pitfalls that can have. A simple stomachache fast becomes something far more serious after browsing a couple of on-line diagnosis websites. This misdiagnosis can only be amplified when you take away the ability to browse through countless pages and instead rely on, as voice does, the first returned option.

I have no doubt that Alexa and her Smart-Speakers brothers and sister will have a big impact on Health Care in the future but whether it can effectively diagnose medical issues, and prescribe the correct medication, remains to be seen.

Alexa may well become our future GP… but will she have our best interests at heart?



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