Tej Kohli is the founder of the not-for-profit Tej Kohli Foundation whose ‘Rebuilding You’ philosophy supports the development of scientific and technological solutions to major global health challenges whilst also making interventions to rebuild people and communities around the world. Tej Kohli is also an impact investor who backs growth-stage artificial intelligence and robotics ventures through the Kohli Ventures investment vehicle. Tej Kohli’s blog is #TejTalks and he is the author of Rebuilding You: The Philanthropy Handbook.Twitter @MrTejKohli.
In recent blogs, I have noted the role that AI is playing in monitoring compliance with government-imposed public lockdowns and in transforming the manufacturing capacity needed to make ventilators and hand sanitiser gel. And every week I am seeing more examples of AI-enabled solutions to the unique problems that the COVID-19 pandemic is currently posing
Some, however, are more limited than others. Take Sophie, the new digital human health advisor launched by UneeQ, a robotics company based in New Zealand and the US in an attempt to “educate and help prevent the spread of Coronavirus misinformation, particularly among those with limited healthcare and medical literacy.” Anyone can try Sophie for free here.
Ask a simple question about the nature of the virus and its symptoms, how dangerous it is, and how to be best protected from infection, and Sophie will provide conversational, fact-based answers by scanning databases from publicly available and real-time World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention resources, and presenting the information in a conversational form.
So far so good. But try asking the same questions of Siri, Apple’s well-known digital voice-activated assistant, and some similar results might pop up. What’s the difference? Sophie certainly comes with a robotic human face and a little more personality, while her language is an improvement on the dry, academic tones of official government websites. But is that enough?
“Sophie is able to communicate with people in a way that comes most naturally — using conversation, human expressions and emotional responses to best educate society,” says UneeQ chief executive Danny Tomsett.
He says the service is aimed at helping the 90 million Americans that the Center for Health Care Strategies says have low health literacy, including the elderly population most vulnerable to the COVID-19 outbreak. “stay up to date, feel more connected, and ultimately make better health decisions”.
However, Sophie is easily thrown off by more complex questions about how long the crisis will last, what damage it might do to the UK population, or how it might affect the global economy. “I haven’t been trained to answer this question directly,” she responds, or “Sorry. I searched my knowledge base but did not find anything related to your query”. Questions about how US President Donald Trump is handling the crisis are met with: “Sorry, I didn’t get that. Can you try phrasing it another way?”.
Can AI produce more empathetic solutions that connect with users more like the humans that they seek to imitate? Of course, some of the more sophisticated versions of such robots can do this and Sophie deserves a lot of credit for being entirely free and available 24 hours a day and in English, French, Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese.
And it’s only fair to point out that she was developed in just two weeks. It would also be only a matter of political choice and further programming to add behavioral nudges and messages that could be part of government and business communication strategies.
Sophie is a good start that offers a glimpse of what the AI future might look like. But it will doubtless take more time and further improvements to unlock the full promise of AI for customer experiences and driving new brand loyalty, and improve AI-powered human-machine interactions.