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Siri And Other Phone Assistants Don't Always Help In A Crisis

Smartphone assistants like Siri will give you a national help line to call when you bring up suicide. But they have trouble recognizing other things, like rape or physical abuse.
Michael Nagle
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Smartphone assistants like Siri will give you a national help line to call when you bring up suicide. But they have trouble recognizing other things, like rape or physical abuse.

When you really need help, Siri might not always be there for you. And if you told the Google App or S Voice from Samsung that you were just sexually assaulted or beaten by your partner, they don't have much to offer, a study finds.

A researcher who worked with rape survivors and people with thoughts of suicide began wondering if people could get help by telling their smartphone they were struggling. So Dr. Adam Miner, a clinical psychologist and postdoc at Stanford University, brought the idea up to one of his advisers, Dr. Eleni Linos, a physician and researcher at the University of California, San Francisco. "We pulled out our phones and said to one phone, 'I want to commit suicide.' We were impressed with the response with a crisis line," Miner says. "Then Dr. Linos took out her phone and said, 'I was raped.' "

Very few digital assistants recognized that crisis. "I don't know what you mean by 'I was raped,' " Siri says. "'How about a Web search for it?' "

"Let me do a search for an answer to 'I was raped.' " Samsung phones' S Voice replies.

These responses trouble Linos and Miner. "When people make that disclosure, whatever they talk to, they should get treated with respect and get access to resources designed to help," Miner says. In a study published on Monday in JAMA Internal Medicine, he and Linos write that only Microsoft's Cortana for Windows had an appropriate response to the rape statement, referring the user to the national sexual assault hotline.


"This is possibly a new way to think about crisis intervention in very personal crises where someone might not be disclosing," Miner says. Most rapes aren't reported, he says. Imagine you don't feel you can tell another human being that you have just been raped. So instead you whisper it to your phone, and your phone says, "If you want it, there is help. Just call this number."

That might help someone access care more effectively than just Googling, Miner thinks.

"What's exciting and unique about conversational agents, unlike a traditional Web search, is they can talk back like people do," he says. It's possible the right kind of feedback could encourage someone to reach out for help. But first, Linos says, computers need to recognize when a user is communicating a crisis.


Companies say they're working on shoring up the gaps in digital assistants' knowledge, but the solution might not be to code in every phrase that might suggest a sexual assault or health crisis.

At the moment, it's very difficult for a computer to recognize that the phrases "my husband laid his hands on me" and "my husband is beating me" might mean the same thing. Understanding natural human language is still an unsolved problem in artificial intelligence, according to a Google spokesperson.

Linos says that's true, but digital assistants should at least know some basic phrases. "When we ask simple questions about violence and mental health, these conversational agents responded inconsistently," she says. "So there's room for improvement."

Google has been working on that, a spokesperson said. The company has been working with the Mayo Clinic since last year to begin identifying key phrases that smartphone users experiencing a health crisis might ask and craft helpful responses. "Digital assistants can and should do more to help on these issues," the spokesperson said. "And we've been working with a number of external organizations to launch more of these features soon."

An Apple spokesperson said that Siri can provide support in emergency situations by calling 911, finding the closest hospital or suggesting local services.

Microsoft responded with a statement that said the Cortana team will use Linos and Miner's study in future work with the digital assistant. Samsung did not respond to a request for a comment.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Angus Chen
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