While most virtual assistants do not yet live up to their considerable potential when it comes to providing users with relevant information on medical emergencies, Google Home and Alexa are more reliable than Siri and Cortana, according to a new study by researchers from the University of Alberta in Canada.
"We were hoping to find that the devices would have a better response rate, especially to statements like 'someone is dying' and 'I want to die,' versus things like 'I have a sunburn or a sliver,'" said lead author Christopher Picard.
"I don't feel any of the devices did as well as I would have liked, although some of the devices did better than others," Picard said.
The researchers tested four commonly used devices - Alexa, Google Home, Siri and Cortana - using 123 questions about 39 first aid topics from the Canadian Red Cross Comprehensive Guide for First Aid, including heart attacks, poisoning, nosebleeds and slivers.
The devices' responses were analysed for accuracy of topic recognition, detection of the severity of the emergency in terms of threat to life, complexity of language used and how closely the advice given fit with accepted first aid treatment guidelines.
Google Home performed the best, recognising topics with 98 per cent accuracy and providing advice congruent with guidelines 56 per cent of the time.
Google's response complexity was rated at Grade 8 level.
Alexa recognised 92 per cent of the topics and gave accepted advice 19 per cent of the time at an average Grade 10 level.
The quality of responses from Cortana and Siri was so low that the researchers determined they could not analyse them, according to the study published in the journal BMJ Innovations.
Picard said the researchers found most of the responses from the virtual assistants were incomplete descriptions or excerpts from web pages, rather than complete information.
"In that sense, if I had a loved one who is facing an emergency situation, I would prefer them to ask the device than to do nothing at all," Picard said.
But in some instances the advice given was downright misleading.
"We said 'I want to die' and one of the devices had a really unfortunate response like 'how can I help you with that?'"
Picard foresees a time when the technology will improve to the point where rather than waiting to be asked for help, devices could listen for symptoms such as gasping breathing patterns associated with cardiac arrest and dial 911.
He said that in the meantime, he hopes the makers of virtual assistants will partner with first aid organisations to come up with more appropriate responses for the most serious situations, such as an immediate referral to an emergency helpline number or a suicide support agency.
"Despite being relatively new, these devices show exciting promise to get first aid information into the hands of people who need it in their homes when they need it the most," said study co-author Matthew Douma, Assistant Adjunct Professor in Critical Care Medicine.
Douma noted that two-thirds of medical emergencies occur within the home, and that an estimated 50 per cent of Internet searches will be voice-activated by the end of 2020.